Students without family support

Students who are not supported by their parents or wider family can face challenges during their time at university or college.

The coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate these challenges, making these students particularly vulnerable. These case studies describe some of the ideas and practices that universities and colleges have put in place to respond quickly to the needs of students without parental support during this time.

These interventions have been developed at pace and have not yet been evaluated for effectiveness. Their inclusion is not intended to stipulate particular approaches or endorse the actions of specific institutions. They are offered in the spirit of sharing practice that others may find useful and applicable to their own contexts.

The university is offering a range of support for care leavers and estranged students:

  • £1,000 for students who are graduating, to help with the costs of moving on from university (for example, accommodation expenses and travel to job interviews)
  • virtual workshops and one-to-one meetings on such topics as postgraduate study options, finding somewhere to live, volunteering, obtaining careers advice and applying for benefits
  • a £1,000 bursary for students progressing to postgraduate study at the university.

The university also offers a Graduate Champions scheme, open to all students, which provides paid work to graduates not in work several months after graduating.

Greater Manchester Higher is one of 29 Uni Connect partnerships funded by the Office for Students to provide higher education outreach to young people across England.

During the pandemic, the partnership is diversifying its offer to ensure that care experienced and estranged young people can access wider information and guidance as well as more specialised provision. It has consulted with local authorities and drawn on the experience of staff who are care leavers to identify what is most needed at this time.

The partnership is continuing to provide impartial advice on its website, which has been restructured to highlight the support available for care experienced and estranged students at universities and colleges in the local area. A lot of existing outreach provision has been moved online.

The partnership is aiming to help as many care experienced students and their supporters as possible throughout this time, and is liaising with local authorities and third sector bodies to signpost them to the higher education and outreach opportunities available to young care experienced people.

The partnership is planning a virtual version of its programme Success4Life, which has been running for several years. Success4Life is an outreach programme for care experienced young people that explores developing soft skills and gives learners an introduction to higher education.

In addition, the partnership is running a Supporting the Supporters continuing professional development event for foster carers, social workers and other professionals.

Staff at Kingston University are working remotely through email and video calls to support care experienced and estranged students during the pandemic. They are offering tailored information, advice and guidance, advocacy and signposting to internal and external services. The university’s wellbeing team is offering a listening service and online counselling to students and has published a wellbeing guide which is updated weekly and provides access to a range of support services.

Student support funds continue to be assessed by the funds team for students in financial hardship, for example if students are unable to work, and emergency payments can be made in exceptional situations.

Staff in halls are supporting students who need to self-isolate and summer accommodation is being arranged for students who need it, with costs being covered for estranged students. The students’ union delivers food packages to vulnerable students who are self-isolating, and care experienced and estranged students are a priority group for this initiative.

The university is also considering ways to make additional opportunities usually offered to care experienced and estranged students available in a virtual environment. This includes an end-of-year social, final year student meetings and summer work placements. 

A graduate support package including a bursary and enhanced careers guidance is also being offered to care-experienced and estranged students who are graduating this year. 

Wellbeing support

Care experienced and estranged students at Leeds Arts University have a single point of contact throughout their time at the university.

During the coronavirus pandemic, these contacts ensure care experienced and estranged students are aware of the resources the university has available, such as online mental health support through video calling software. Alternative support through online instant messaging and email is provided for students who are unable to take part in video calls (for example because they do not have a private space to talk).

The university also works in partnership with the Big White Wall and the Consent Collective, to which students have 24/7 access.

Academic support

The university has made sure that all care experienced and estranged students have access to laptops and the internet, to be able to continue their studies during this time.

Academic support tutorials have been promoted specifically to care experienced and estranged students, with the intention of ensuring they feel that there is a safety net to support them during this period.

Caring for current students

Care experienced and estranged students at the University of Bristol have a named contact who ensures that students are receiving regular updates and communications regarding the support in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This has included moving one-to-one meetings and group socials online. The students’ union has also distributed care packages to care experienced and estranged students.

While the university has comprehensive support available, it has identified that a lack of regular contact with friends, colleagues and classmates can quickly lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety during this time. The Bristol Voices befriending scheme has been set up in response to this, and has been targeted to support care leavers and estranged students.

Bristol alumni and staff have volunteered to support students via phone or messaging services to offer extra, informal social support for students during the pandemic.

Support for prospective students

The university’s outreach team is supporting prospective students by hosting an online virtual event for care experienced and estranged students.

The event aims to share information on finance, accommodation and student support, while also allowing prospective students the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with university staff.

The University of Salford has contacted care experienced and estranged applicants for 2020-21 entry to invite them to a bespoke online open day, including a lunch delivery, which is tailored to their needs and interests.

The visit day is publicised to local authorities – the university offers the option of group sessions for young people in the care of the local authority and their key workers. There are also pre-application sessions for colleges and schools.

The day includes:

  • a presentation on higher education
  • a virtual campus tour
  • a presentation by the university’s care experienced and estranged teams
  • Q&A sessions with student ambassadors
  • a meeting with an academic from the course the student has applied to.

Care leaver ambassadors and care leaver members of staff are on hand to answer any questions.

Financial support

The University of Sunderland has added to its hardship fund and is prioritising applications from care experienced and estranged students.

Personalised support (including financial support) has been offered to these students, and the university will continue to be in touch with them over the coming weeks. It has increased its ‘We Care’ scholarship (for such students) from £1,500 to £2,000. This means each scholarship student will receive an additional payment of £500 in July 2020, when they have said they will most need the money.

The university is also sending supermarket vouchers to students experiencing financial hardship.

Some students who do not have their own laptops are being loaned university laptops (which are being couriered directly to them) for their academic studies. Final year students can also use them to apply for jobs.


The university has phoned every care experienced and estranged student it supports to check in with them and signpost them to the university’s We Care Team. Students have been asked whether they would like to receive weekly check-in phone calls.

Care experienced and estranged students are sent regular email updates, and the university holds video meetings with staff and students once a fortnight. This has given students the opportunity to get to know each other and share ‘isolation stories’. A Facebook group has also been set up for students to talk to each other and receive updates from the university.

The University of the West of England has found that the most common issues care experienced and estranged students are reporting relate to paying for rent and food while they are unable to work, anxiety around summer accommodation and feeling lonely, anxious and isolated if they are alone in term-time accommodation or self-isolating. Students have also reported struggling to pay for IT equipment, which is needed to participate in their courses remotely.

To respond to this, the university is releasing hardship funds and emergency financial aid, prioritising disadvantaged groups including care experienced and estranged students.

Staff have worked with leaders across the university to develop new systems for escalating homelessness and financial concerns, and to communicate how support is changing and what support can be accessed remotely. Students can sign up for video call appointments, and staff are aiming to speak to them regularly so that the students know they are available for help and reassurance. Online socials are being delivered to help students maintain a sense of community and support positive wellbeing.

The university is offering weekly online drop-in sessions for care leavers and estranged students who may be feeling lonely. These are well attended and have received positive feedback from the students. Students can also make one-to-one appointments to discuss wellbeing and other issues they may be facing.

The university is working to ensure that the relevant services and departments (such as catering and student finance) meet students’ needs during the pandemic. It has also:

  • established email and Facebook groups to encourage care leavers and estranged students to socialise and share their experiences of the current situation
  • sent a weekly ‘check-in’ email, and a monthly newsletter with tips and opportunities
  • sent out Easter gifts.

The university has been communicating with local authorities (with the consent of the student) on behalf of care leavers receiving local authority support, to ensure that support is joined up. Personal Education Plan meetings have taken place online with university staff attending along with the student and local authority support worker.

Teaching and assessment have now moved online. The university has contacted all its care leaver and estranged students to offer advice and support with their studies, and to signpost them to additional academic support if they feel they are struggling.

Students without IT equipment or an internet connection have been offered equipment loans and a wireless dongle. Care leavers and estranged students have been prioritised to receive this support.

Students have access to a wealth of online support, including the Skills for Learning Canvas course, which provides resources and virtual workshops on academic study skills. Students are also being offered online chat services to help with any queries.


OfS publications related to coronavirus

Provider guide to coronavirus – FAQs on support for vulnerable students

Student guide to coronavirus

OfS coronavirus briefing note – student accommodation

OfS coronavirus briefing note – supporting student mental health

Guidance for Uni Connect partnerships during the pandemic

National Network for the Education of Care Leavers

The National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) works with colleges and universities in the UK to ensure that access and support to higher education for care experienced people is exemplary and consistent. 

With the Unite Foundation and Spectra, NNECL has carried out a survey of students without family support to understand the challenges they are facing during the coronavirus pandemic.

NNECL has also published a good practice guide for providers with care experienced and estranged students during the coronavirus pandemic.

Government guidance 

Guidance for local authorities, academy trusts and schools on how to get internet access, digital devices and support to provide remote education during the coronavirus pandemic.

Help for prospective students

The Discover Uni website, which provides information and guidance on higher education for prospective students, is publishing regular updates about the impact of the pandemic for 2020-21 university and college applicants.

UCAS has updated its website with advice for applicants during the pandemic.

Prospective university or college students and their guardians can find their nearest Uni Connect partnership to help them access advice and guidance.

Support for people without family support and other vulnerable people

The Rees Foundation supports care leavers and care experienced people and communities across the UK.

The Become charity provides advice, support and opportunities for care experienced children and young people. It has a coronavirus advice page for care experienced young people.

The Propel website (run by Become) provides care leavers with information on the support available to them from colleges and universities offering higher education courses across the UK. It contains named contacts for care experienced students.

The Unite Foundation offers scholarships to some care leavers and estranged students.

Buttle UK provides grants and support to vulnerable young people.

Stand Alone supports adults who are estranged from their family or a key family member. Named contacts for estranged students are on their website.

Care Leaver Covenant is a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 to help them to live independently. They have compiled a directory of organisations supporting care leavers during the pandemic and produced a fact sheet on advice for care leavers during and after the pandemic with the Department for Education.

The This Is Us podcast is by and for care leavers and estranged students, and will be hosting a live chat at 2000 weeknights throughout the pandemic.

Childline provides advice and emotional support for children and young people under the age of 19. Call 0800 1111 or chat online.

Young Minds provides information and support on mental health for children and young people, including a free 24-hour messenger service for a young person experiencing a mental health crisis. 

The Mix is a support service for young people (up to age 25) offering advice and support on a range of issues including mental health, finance, homelessness, employment and drugs dependency. A telephone counselling service offers short-term help with mental health and emotional wellbeing. Call 0808 808 4994 or chat online.

Kooth provides online counselling and emotional support for children and young people aged 11-25.

People of all ages can call the Samaritans on 116 123, to talk about anything that’s worrying them, 24 hours a day.

Shout is a 24/7 UK crisis text service for people who feel they need immediate support.

Mind provides information on mental health issues, advocacy, medication and treatments, as well as details of local help and support services. Call the Infoline on 0300 123 3393.

Hopeline UK. A specialist telephone service offering support, practical advice and information to children, teenagers and young people up to the age of 35, who are worried about how they’re feeling. Call 0800 068 4141 or text 07786 209697. 

Breethe mediation app. Children in care and care leavers can get a free annual subscription by emailing [email protected].

Youth Access is a resource for finding local counselling, advice and information services.

Financial advice

The government has produced guidance on students and universal credit and information about universal credit and coronavirus.

Turn 2 us has information and advice about money and benefits, including during coronavirus. 

The National Debt Line gives money and debt advice, including advice and support on coronavirus-related issues. Call 0808 808 4000 or chat online. 

Support for parents and carers

Grandparents Plus is a national kinship care charity. Call the advice line on 0300 123 7015 or email [email protected].

Family Rights Group provides confidential advice for parents and family members who are involved with or need children's social care services. Call 0808 801 0366.

Making complaints

Students with concerns about how their provider is supporting them during the current situation should first raise these with their university or college. Students can escalate complaints with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) once they have exhausted the complaints procedure at their higher education provider.

Published 22 May 2020
Last updated 07 July 2020
07 July 2020
Added link to fact sheet created by the Care Leaver Covenant and Department for Education to resources section
10 June 2020
Additional NNECL resources added

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