Estranged students in Further (FE) and Higher Education (HE) - experiences: research
Research to understand the experiences of estranged students in further and higher education in Scotland.
Introduction and methodology
In March 2022, the Scottish Government commissioned ScotCen Social Research (ScotCen) to undertake research on the experiences of estranged students in Scotland. The aim was to provide an insight into the contexts and experiences of estranged students in further and higher education (FE and HE). This report draws out learning from the research findings to inform future policy and improve the provision of support for estranged students.
The Scottish Government has committed to "improve the support available to estranged students - those without parental financial support - with a package of support equivalent to the Living Wage". It has also committed to "explore whether a programme of guarantorship for estranged students, who are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation within the housing market, can be created in partnership with colleges and universities".
The study consisted of: a rapid review of the literature; online/telephone depth interviews with 25 estranged students and 6 stakeholders; and focus groups with 7 college and 5 university named contacts. Forty-three people participated in the research.
Reasons and contexts of estrangement
- Key reasons given by students for estrangement from their parents/guardians were: toxic relationships with biological/step parents; students acting as carers to parents and/or siblings; emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; cultural conflicts and clashes of values such as religion, forced marriage, or parents not accepting their sexuality/gender identity. These findings are consistent with existing literature on estrangement. The research highlights the effects of intersectionality on estranged students.
- Some students were not familiar with the term 'estrangement' and awareness tended to come from interacting with SAAS or college and university staff.
- Often, HE students had declared their estrangement to SAAS but not to their college/university. Reasons for this delay in declaration included a reluctance to self-declare due to feelings of embarrassment, pride or shame, as well as a lack of awareness of the additional support offered by colleges and universities to estranged students. The process of evidencing estrangement was perceived to be stressful and challenging for students.
- FE and HE students who did declare to their institution tended to do so at points of crisis, often a year or two into their studies.
Impacts of estrangement on finance
- The fear of not having enough money to live off was acute and impacted on estranged students' already fragile mental health and their studies.
- Significant financial hardship was common among the students who reported using food banks, going without food, and getting into debt.
- Current levels of funding for estranged students were deemed insufficient (by participating students, named contacts and stakeholders) to cover the essentials of daily living, let alone the wider 'student experience'.
- The high cost of accommodation meant the majority of student funding was used by estranged students for rent, with little left for other essentials.
- Some HE estranged students received lower levels of SAAS funding than they were potentially eligible for as a result of late self-declarations, becoming estranged after applying to SAAS, or lacking awareness of SAAS funding for estranged students.
- Students expressed concern about student loan debt, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and the need to support dependents.
- Paid work was considered a necessity by the majority of interviewees, with some working very long hours, which impacted on their academic performance.
- Several FE students said their college bursaries had been reduced due to poor attendance related to the impacts of being estranged on mental health or due to taking on additional paid work.
- Discretionary/hardship funding was a key source of income, but awareness of this funding was sometimes low.
- Estranged students struggled with the lack of student finance over the summer.
- There was strong support amongst all participant types for funding to be brought in line with the Care Experienced Students Bursary, but there was concern that this would still not meet basic needs.
Impact of estrangement on accommodation
- It was common for students to have experienced periods of homelessness or to have felt at risk of becoming homeless. Worries about this happening again in the future were pervasive. Some students had 'couch-surfed' for long periods, relying on extended family, friends or family of friends. Others had lived in emergency hostels and homeless accommodation.
- Students reported their accommodation options were heavily limited by the high cost of student rents, particularly halls of residence and privately rented accommodation.
- Estranged students raised concerns about the quality of accommodation they could afford, with some living in accommodation where they felt unsafe or cramped. As a result, some students had moved frequently, which impacted negatively on their studies and mental health.
- Estranged students found it difficult to access a rent guarantor, which further limited their accommodation options. Some relied on family or friends' parents to act as guarantors, while others paid large deposits or non-guarantor payments.
- Awareness of existing guarantor schemes was low. Those who were aware highlighted limitations around them tending not to include private and joint tenancies, caps on the number of students who could access them, and caps on the level of monthly rents covered. Students and stakeholders were overwhelmingly supportive of a national guarantorship scheme.
Impact of estrangement on educational transitions, attainment and progression
- Where estrangement happened while still at school, this was said to impact significantly on students' attainment. This affected FE and HE access with some missing out on their preferred course or institution, while others went to college to obtain missed qualifications.
- Some HNC/HND students expressed a reluctance to articulate, preferring to enter first year of degree programmes. In some cases, this led to additional years' learning, which increased student loan debt.
- The financial and emotional impacts of estrangement interfered with students' ability to focus on coursework and their grades. This led students to interrupt their studies through drop out, repeated trimesters/years, course changes and the necessity for additional time to complete assignments.
- Some students reported they felt unsupported by teaching staff who did not understand the challenges faced by estranged students. Others were able to draw on support systems of partners, extended family and friends, as well as college and university staff to help them achieve academically and provide emotional support. Those without the support of friends and family found it harder to navigate systems and felt more isolated.
- Graduation was viewed with anxiety by some estranged students due to the end of student funding and how they would afford necessities.
Impact on estrangement on health and wellbeing
- Many students had long-lasting and complex mental health issues as a result of trauma resulting from their estrangement. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation and behaviour were common among the participants. Poor mental health was exacerbated by stress relating to finances and accommodation.
- Estrangement also led to feelings of loneliness, isolation and stigma and resulted in low confidence and self-esteem, as well as difficulties in forming relationships with other students and staff.
- While the negative mental health impact of being estranged predominated, students also highlighted the positives of freedom through emancipation, escaping abusive relationships and being able to be themselves.
- Students' experiences of accessing support for mental health and wellbeing varied. Some were unaware their institution offered counselling. Others were aware, with some successfully accessing support and finding it helpful. However, others reported long waiting lists or that their needs had been considered too complex. Some paid privately to access appropriate therapy.
- The support of classmates, friends, partners and extended family were considered vital to cope with the many emotional impacts of estrangement, but not all students were able to access this type of support.
Institutional responses to estrangement
- There was evidence of estranged students receiving support through their institution to assist them with finances, accommodation, academic studies and mental health. Overall, those who received support found it helpful.
- Students experienced barriers in accessing support. A lack of awareness of support offered to estranged students in colleges and universities, as well as a general reluctance to self-declare as estranged meant disclosures often came late, delaying students' ability to access support.
- When students did declare to their institution, this was often to a member of teaching staff rather than a named contact, and teaching staff rarely referred students to a named contact. Students who had been supported by named contacts were highly positive, yet awareness of named contacts was low amongst interviewees.
- Named contacts and stakeholders expressed concern at the degree of variation between colleges and universities in how they distributed discretionary funding.
- Mental health support at colleges and universities was thought to be lacking and focused on educational attainment rather than addressing the causes of the mental health challenges or trauma.
Improving support for estranged students
- Support is needed for students to feel able to declare their estrangement (to both SAAS and their university/college) at the earliest opportunity to enable them to access the appropriate financial and mental health support.
- Proactive promotion of the support available to estranged students through colleges, universities and SAAS would help raise awareness of estrangement to encourage earlier self-declaration, help students access support and improve understanding among FE and HE staff.
- Financial support available to estranged students should be more proactively promoted to estranged students to further encourage early self-declaration.
- Participants called for mental health support suitable for addressing the issues faced by students (for example, trauma, self-harm and/or suicidal ideation) to be more widely available and more actively promoted.
- There was wide support for the provision of a national guarantorship system for estranged students which would cover any type of accommodation or provision of more affordable student accommodation.
- Students, named contacts and stakeholders called for year-round funding based on bursaries rather than loans, to overcome the financially precarious lives of estranged students.
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