People estranged from their families

In higher education, the term ‘estranged’ applies to students who are aged 18 to 24 and are not communicating with either of their parents.

These students often lack the support of their wider family. They may be estranged before entering higher education but can also be at risk of estrangement or becoming estranged during their studies.

Estranged students are included in the OfS definition of underrepresented groups as part of the wider set of student groups where national data indicates there are particular equality gaps and support needs that can be addressed in access and participation plans.

Why does this matter?

Research by the Unite Foundation and Stand Alone highlighted that estranged students are more likely to be from groups that experience disadvantage in education compared with the student population as a whole.

Research by Unite Students with HEPI and YouthSight found that a high proportion of estranged students have a disability, with 65 per cent of respondents who are estranged from their families reporting that they consider themselves to have a disability, impairment or long-term health condition. A high proportion of estranged students reported having a mental health condition (29 per cent).

In addition, a survey of estranged students by Stand Alone in collaboration with the Student Loans Company found that 14 per cent of those who responded had suspended or deferred their current course of study; and 27 per cent had considered doing so. Financial stress was identified as the main reason for this.

Estranged students often have similar needs to care leavers. About one in five have been in care, but do not fit the statutory definition of a care leaver.

Local authorities have no statutory responsibility to look after the welfare of estranged students, or provide accommodation in the holiday periods, as they do for care leavers. Estranged students are therefore at risk of financial difficulty, summer homelessness and social isolation.

Effective practice

Providers may wish to consider how to support estranged students on open days, welcome week, during years studying abroad, graduation, and transition to employment or postgraduate study.

For example, universities and colleges may wish to consider how they can support estranged students in their transition to higher education. The Unite Students Insight Report (2019) found that freshers’ week seems to be successful in meeting the needs of estranged students.

Students estranged from their parents or who have been in local authority care reported higher than average levels of satisfaction with their experience of freshers’ week.

This can perhaps be attributed to students feeling independent both socially and financially and having the opportunity for a ‘fresh start’.

Accommodation is a particularly important issue for estranged students, as unlike care leavers they do not receive housing support from local authorities.

Stand Alone note in their report published with the Unite Foundation that many of the estranged students they work with register themselves as homeless over the summer in order to become eligible for support.

Universities and colleges may wish to consider taking a structured approach to this issue, for example through including summer housing at a discounted rate, guarantor assistance, or providing bursaries to help with deposit payments.

Providers may also wish to consider how they can support estranged students with mental health conditions.

Research by Unite Students found that while 51 per cent of students considered mental health something they need to deal with alone, estranged students (and care leavers) stand out as a group who are a lot less likely to feel that mental health is something that they should deal with by themselves.

We also encourage providers to sign the Stand Alone Pledge. This is a written commitment from a senior staff member to develop support for estranged students in four areas:

  • finance
  • accommodation
  • access and transition
  • mental health and wellbeing.

We encourage providers to continue to improve the collection, accuracy and evaluation of estranged student data, both for pre-entry students and those on-course.

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