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.

1. Introduction

1.1. Rationale for the research

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 might be created in partnership with colleges and universities (Scottish Government, 2021).To help contextualise the research, this section provides a brief summary of the key findings from the UK literature on student estrangement. A more detailed review of the literature is published separately to this document.

In Scotland, definitions of estrangement vary by funding provider. In this study, estranged students were defined as those without care experience who had no contact with their parents/legal guardians/carers as a result of a permanent breakdown in their relationship.

Research shows that estranged students are more likely to be female, and estrangement tends to occur during secondary school or further education (FE) (Bland, 2015) . Physical and emotional abuse, mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, and a clash of personalities and values have been identified as key causes of estrangement (Bland, et al., 2015), as have family rejection among LGBTQI+ students, and issues around divorce and forced marriage (Blake, 2017).

Scottish and English research points to the precarious finances of students cut off from the safety net of their families. Estranged students participating in qualitative and quantitative studies undertaken in Scotland and England reported how stressful and upsetting providing evidence of their estrangement could be (Taylor and Costa, 2019b). It could also be time consuming, which was found to delay any financial support available (Bland, 2015; Scottish Government, 2017). Forced to rely on the informal support of friends or extended family and institutional hardship funds, but with no recourse to the additional support offered to those with care experience (Minty and Vertigans, 2021), estranged students have been found to experience high levels of debt, credit card use and payday loans (Bland, 2015). In a 2022 survey of Scottish students conducted by NUS Scotland, 84% of estranged student respondents said their mental health had been impacted by worrying about money (versus 64% of all student respondents) (NUS Scotland, 2022).

Various studies have shown estranged students are more likely to be affected by homelessness, especially during holidays (Bland and Shaw, 2015; Taylor and Costa, 2019a; Minty and Vertigans, 2021). In 2022, 26% of estranged students in Scotland responding to NUS Scotland's survey had experienced this (versus 10% of all students responding) (NUS Scotland, 2022). A survey of UK estranged students across the UK for Stand Alone in 2015 found that it can be difficult for estranged students to obtain private rental agreements without a guarantor (Bland and Shaw, 2015). Part-time work is often essential to cover the high cost of student accommodation which may have a detrimental impact on students' engagement with their studies (Howieson and Minty, 2019). The literature highlights the impact of the pandemic in reducing part-time job opportunities for students (Scottish Government, 2020; Minty and Vertigans, 2021) and increasing estranged students' isolation (Blake, et al., 2020). This potentially exacerbates the 'near constant threat of precarity' faced by estranged students (Costa, et al., 2020) who experience high levels of exclusion and stigma (Bland and Shaw, 2015; Taylor and Costa, 2019b).

Estrangement has been found to impact not just FE/HE access, but transitions from school to FE, between FE and HE, and beyond. Estranged students are three times more likely to drop out of university than the average student. They are also less likely to be integrated into the student community (Bland, 2015), and less likely to achieve at least a 2:1 degree (Office for Students, 2020). Scottish students reported how estrangement impacted on their sense of belonging to an institution, affected their ability to settle into their course academically and socially, and meant they missed out on student life (Taylor and Costa, 2019b; Minty and Vertigans, 2021; Bland, 2015).

1.2. Policy background

Widening access and funding policy in Scotland has until recently tended to focus on neighbourhood deprivation, family income, and care experienced students (Commissioner for Fair Access, 2020). Amid signs of a shift in policy focus, the 2017 Independent Review into Student Support in Scotland highlighted how estranged students are distinct to 'independent students' as they are unable to draw upon family or the state as a corporate parent (Scottish Government, 2017). It called for student loans to be extended to FE students and for a minimum student income of £8100 for all.

It is difficult to know precisely how many estranged students there are in Scotland. Initial data published by the SFC for 2020-21 is available in the Report on Widening Access (SFC, 2022b, publication's background tables). Given the emotional and practical difficulties of evidencing family estrangement, it is likely numbers are higher (Taylor and Costa, 2019b). Data collection on numbers of estranged students in college and university is a new development and numbers should be treated with caution until the collections are established.

The level of funding estranged students receive depends on whether they are in FE or HE. Those studying higher education (HE) courses (degrees, Higher National Certificates/Diplomas) in university/college are funded centrally through Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS). These students are eligible for different levels of maintenance loans and bursaries depending on whether they are assessed as 'young students' (aged under 25) on the basis of their parent's, parent's (civil) partner (that live with them), or legal guardian's income, or 'independent students' where household income is assessed as the combined income of you and your husband, wife or (civil) partner (the same as those aged over 25) (Table 1). Students who register as estranged with SAAS can access the maximum independent student package (current rate £8,100) and are not subject to any means-testing. Students with experience of care are entitled to the Care Experienced Student Bursary (CESB).

Table 1: SAAS support available to Scots-domiciled HE students 2022-2023
Household income Bursary Loan Total Bursary Loan Total Bursary
£0 to £20,999 £2,000 £6,100 £8,100 £1,000 £7,100 £8,100 £8,100
£21,000 to £23,999 £1,125 £6,100 £7,225 £0 £7,100 £7,100  
£24,000 to £33,999 £500 £6,100 £6,600 £0 £6,600 £6,600  
£34,000 and above £0 £5,100 £5,100 £0 £5,100 £5,100  

Note: Estranged students are not subject to means testing and receive the maximum ISB and loan available.

FE students (undertaking National Certificates, General Scottish Vocational Qualifications, National Qualifications) access support directly via their college. This includes Educational Maintenance Allowance (if aged 16-19) and college bursaries. At the time of the research (2021-22), FE students were eligible for up to £4667.65 split over 43 weeks (SFC, 2021a). This increased to £4,859 for 2022-23. In some cases, students may also qualify for Universal Credit.

Estranged students can also access hardship or discretionary funding via their college/university (SFC, 2021b; SFC, 2022a) . Student parents may be eligible for Childcare Funds to assist with the costs of childminders, after school clubs, daycare, sitter services and pre-school education.

Fifteen universities and 11 colleges in Scotland have taken the Stand Alone Pledge to support estranged students (Stand Alone, 2022) (see Appendix 1). Institutions may offer additional support to estranged students, such as: guaranteed accommodation for 52 weeks a year; guarantorships for rental agreements; named contacts providing one-to-one support; institutional bursaries or scholarships for estranged students; and targeted academic and pastoral support.



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