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.

2. Methodology

2.1. Research aims and objectives

The overall aim of the research was to understand more about the experiences of, and available evidence on, estranged students in Scottish further education (FE) and higher education (HE) institutions. The research aligns with the Scottish Government's 2021 manifesto commitment to improve the support available to estranged students. The invitation to tender outlined a number of research aims and questions which are outlined below:

Aim 1: Understand more about the available published literature on estrangement and estranged students - what it tells us and what we may learn from it

  • What does the available published evidence on estrangement tell us and what may we learn from it?
  • Are there any good practice examples of supporting students who are estranged in Scotland and the rest of the UK which could be learned from? What are the key areas of learning from these?
  • What are the key learning points that can be drawn from this research to inform the development/delivery of future policy?

Aim 2: Understand more about the contexts of estrangement for students engaging with FE and HE in Scotland

  • How can we understand more about the reasons for, and contexts of, estrangement that estranged students experience when engaging with colleges and universities in Scotland?
  • How do these contexts (including age, equalities and deprivation) shape the experiences of estranged students studying in FE and HE in Scotland?
  • How do these contexts shape transitions? For example, experiences of transitioning into FE and HE and/or between FE and HE, and potential insights of current students on their future transition from FE and HE following the completion of their studies/graduation?

Aim 3: Understand more about the insights and experiences of estranged students engaging with colleges and universities in Scotland, including any barriers/issues faced

  • What can we learn from the insights and experiences of estranged students and stakeholders working with them about their engagements and interactions with FE and HE in Scotland?
  • What has worked well/less well? Where are the barriers?

Aim 4: Understand more about possible solutions

  • What could be done to overcome barriers experienced by estranged students in both an FE and HE context? What learning may be shared?
  • What types of approach/support do estranged students and stakeholders engaging with them think could make a difference to estranged students in both a FE and HE context, and their student experiences?
  • What more could institutions do to offer support to estranged students, for example, in relation to student finance, accommodation and pastoral support?
  • The Manifesto Commitment seeks to improve the support available to estranged students, with a package of support equivalent to the Living Wage. What would be the potential impact of this, what do estranged students and stakeholders perceive to be key considerations/priorities within this?

2.2. Research ethics

An application was submitted to NatCen Research Ethics Committee (REC) in late March 2022, and ethical approval was granted in early April 2022.

2.3. Research design and sampling

To address the research aims and questions, ScotCen conducted a study consisting of a rapid review of literature and qualitative research.

2.3.1. Review of literature

To ensure the research built on existing evidence, a rapid review of literature of published evidence on contexts and experiences of estrangement in FE and HE in the UK was conducted. This included reviewing academic journals, grey literature and research undertaken by specialist organisations. Researchers also reviewed publicly available policy documents and strategies to contextualise institutional approaches to estranged students. This involved searching webpages of FE/HE institutions in Scotland/UK. The review aimed to identify gaps in the literature, identify areas of best practice and inform the selection of stakeholders and institutions invited to take part in the fieldwork. The review also influenced the content of the research tools.

2.3.2. Qualitative research

To meet the research aims and fully understand contexts of estrangement and students' experiences of them, qualitative methodologies were implemented. These included telephone/online depth interviews with stakeholders and estranged students, and online focus groups with college and university staff. All qualitiative interviews and focus groups took place between 9th May and 1st June 2022.

Estranged student sampling

To ensure a diverse range of experiences of estrangement were captured by the research, a purposive sampling approach was used. A number of sampling criteria were identified for selecting estranged students for interview. The main sampling criteria included:

  • Level of course (full-time FE courses, HNC/Ds and university-based degrees), and
  • Institution type and location (large city college/ancient university, town college/pre-92 university, rural college/post-92 university).

In addition, estranged students were selected to include diversity in terms of: age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, SIMD, disability and caring responsibilities.

Stakeholder sampling

Stakeholders were selected to ensure that a range of perspectives were included. A long-list of relevant stakeholders was identified in consultation with the RAG. This included a mixture of policy experts and representatives from relevant third sector organisations.

College and university staff sampling

To capture the views and experiences of FE and HE staff, two focus groups with named contacts responsible for assisting estranged students were conducted, one with college staff and the other with university staff. Universities were selected to ensure that a range of institutions were included in the research, including 'ancients', pre- and post-92 universities. Colleges were selected to ensure they represented both rural and urban settings, and varied in size. The selection of institutions was also based on findings from the review of institutional policies and in consultation with the Research Advisory Group (RAG). Each focus group included 5-8 participants to ensure 10-16 different institutions were included in the research.

2.4. Recruitment

2.4.1. Estranged students

Estranged students were invited to participate in the research using a number of recruitment strategies. In consultation with the RAG, ScotCen drafted an invitation to participate in the research to be sent to estranged students by email from Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) and a number of colleges. The invitation email was sent to 17 colleges and eight replied to say that the invitation had been shared with students.

The invitation to participate in the research included a summary of the research and contact details for the ScotCen research team. This enabled those wishing to participate in the research to express their interest with the research team directly. Once an individual expressed interest, a member of the research team made contact via email to share an information sheet and privacy notice which outlined further details about the research. The email also included a link to a short online screening questionnaire. Individuals were given the option to complete the screening questions by telephone with a member of the ScotCen research team. Screening questions asked about an individual's age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, SIMD, institution name and level of course. Individuals were also asked about any accessibility needs for participating in an interview. Individuals who had completed screening questions were selected for interview based on the sampling criteria agreed at project inception and invited to choose a date and time for interview.

2.4.2. Stakeholders

ScotCen selected up to six individuals from the long list of stakeholders and invited them to participate in an interview, thus ensuring the anonymity of participants. Participants were selected to represent a broad range of views. An invitation to participate in the research was sent via email and included a research information sheet and privacy notice. Stakeholders interested in participating in the research replied directly to ScotCen to arrange a suitable time and date for the interview.

2.4.3. College and university named contacts

ScotCen selected named contacts from nine universities and eight colleges to invite to participate in a focus group. Universities and colleges were selected based on the findings of the review of institutions' policies and practice undertaken as part of the research (see Appendix 1). Each institution selected demonstrated that they were taking steps to support estranged students with initiatives such as: a named contact, a guarantorship system, and/or bursaries for estranged students. Institutions were also selected to ensure diversity in terms of type of university (ancient, pre-92, post-92), size of college and geographic location (urban, town, rural).

An invitation to participate in the research was sent via email and included a research information sheet and privacy notice. ScotCen sent invitation emails to universities and ScotCen and Scottish Funding Council (SFC) sent invitation emails to colleges. Staff interested in participating in the research were asked to reply directly to ScotCen to express their interest in taking part in the research.

2.5. Conducting the research

The interview and focus group topic guides were developed in April 2022 in consultation with the Scottish Government and members of the Research Advisory Group formed by the Scottish Government for this project.

All interviews and focus groups were conducted either by telephone or video call (using MS Teams or Zoom). Interviews took place at times and dates which met with the preferences of participants. On the day of a scheduled interview or focus group, the researcher checked that the participant(s) had received and had a chance to read the project information sheet and privacy notice (either electronically or online). Participants were reminded that the interview or focus group was, voluntary, confidential and their participation in the research would not be shared with anyone outside the research team. Participants were also reminded that their data would be securely processed and stored in line with UK GDPR. With the consent of participants, all interviews and focus groups were audio recorded using an encrypted digital recorder and transcribed for ease of analysis. Verbal consent was recorded at the start of each interview and focus group.

After completing an interview, estranged students received a £30 Love2Shop e-voucher as a one-off thank you gift for their time and for sharing their experiences, and an electronic 'useful contacts' leaflet of sources of further support.

2.6. Analysis

All transcripts were imported into and coded using NVivo 12, a software package which aids qualitative data analysis. Firstly, the key topics and issues which emerged from the research objectives and the data were identified through familiarisation with transcripts by members of the research team. A draft analytical framework was drawn up by the research team and piloted by three researchers on one transcript. The analytical framework was then refined after discussions within the wider project team. Once the analytical framework was finalised, each transcript was coded so that all the data on a particular theme could be viewed together.

Through reviewing the coded data, the full range of views and attitudes described by respondents were systematically mapped, and the accounts of different respondents, or groups of respondents, compared and contrasted.

2.7. Participant demographics

Forty-three people participated in the research: 25 estranged students, six stakeholders, seven college staff and five university staff.

2.7.1. Estranged students

Sixty-seven students expressed interest in taking part in the research. Forty-five students filled in the screening questionnaire, eight of whom did not meet the eligibility criteria for the research (either because they were not estranged or were in receipt of the Care Experienced Student Bursary, CESB). Twenty-eight students were invited to take part in an interview, of which 25 completed an interview.

Table 2 shows that the sample was split almost evenly between students studying at university (n=13) and college (n=12). Those studying at college were split evenly between HE and FE courses. Students from 11 universities and five colleges were interviewed as part of the research.

Table 2. Estranged students by type of institution and course level
Institution type Further Education HNC/HND Degree
Large city college/ancient university 2 2 4
Town college/pre-92 university 5 3 5
Rural college/post-92 university 0 0 4
Total (n=25) 7 5 13

The estranged students who participated in the research were aged between 18 and 39 with the majority (n=20) aged 18-25 (Table 3). While the majority of students described themselves as white Scottish/British/Irish/European (Including Gypsy, Traveller, Roma and Showman/Showwoman) (n=17), approximately a third identified as Black, Asian, mixed or multiple ethnic groups (n=8). Over half (n=13) of the students were living in areas of SIMD quintiles 1 or 2.

Over half of the students who paticipated in the research identified as female (n=15) with four students stating their gender identity was different from the gender they were given at birth. The majority of students described themselves as bisexual (n=12) or heterosexual (n=9).

Approximately a third of students were living with a disability and/or long-term medical condition (n=8). Of the students who said they were living with a disability, five attended college and three attended university. Four students were parents. Approximately a quarter of participating students said they belonged to a religious denomination (n=6) (2 Muslim, 2 Catholic, 1 Christian and 1 Pagan).

Table 3. Summary table of estranged student demographics
Estranged students (n=25) N
Under 18 0
18-20 10
21-25 10
26> 5
SIMD quintile  
1 (Those living in the 20% most deprived postcodes) 9
2 4
3 2
4 3
5 (Those living in the 20% least deprived postcodes) 7
White Scottish/British/Irish/European (Including Gypsy, Traveller, Roma and Showman/Showwoman) 17
Asian or Asian Scottish/British/Irish/European 5
Black African, Black Caribbean or Black Scottish/British/Irish/European 1
Mixed or multiple ethnic groups 1
Any other ethnic group 1
Female (including trans woman) 15
Male (including trans man) 7
Non-binary 3
In another way (please write in) 0
Prefer not to say 0
Gender identity the same as the gender given at birth  
Yes 21
No 4
Prefer not to say 0
Bisexual 12
Heterosexual 9
In another way (please write in) 3
Gay 1
Lesbian 0
Prefer not to say 0
Living with a disability/long-term medical condition  
Yes 8
No 16
Prefer not to say 1
Religion or religious denomination  
Yes 6
None 19
Prefer not to say 0

2.7.2. Stakeholders and college and university named contacts

Six stakeholders from five organisations took part in an interview.

Twelve institutional named contacts for estranged students took part in a focus group. Seven colleges (three large city, two small city/large town, and two rural colleges) and five universities (one ancient, two pre-92 and two post-92) were represented in the focus group.

2.8. Strengths and limitations of the research

There were a number of strengths and limitations associated with the research:


  • Estranged students were recruited via SAAS and colleges. Those interested in participating in the research were asked to contact ScotCen directly. Everyone who expressed an interest was asked to complete screening questions. This enabled the research team to sample on a number of different criteria and resulted in the successful recruitment of a wide range of estranged students in terms of course type, institution type, age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, SIMD, disability and caring responsibilities.
  • It is possible that our modes of recruitment did not reach all estranged students living in Scotland. For example, no estranged students under the age of 18 expressed an interest in participating in the research. We do not know if this is due to our recruitment approach or another reason. For example, participants in this research tended to declare their estrangement later on in their course, sometime after they first became estranged.
  • This study enhances the available evidence on the experiences of estranged students in education. It is unusual in that it includes students from colleges and universities across Scotland. Much of the existing qualitative literature tends to focus on students in one or two institutions. Additionally, the research explored not just the experiences of students themselves, but also considered the views of those who provide support in colleges, universities, and wider stakeholders. This provided a multi-dimensional view of the experiences of estranged students in FE and HE.


  • The data gathered as part of this research was extremely rich and provides greater insight into the views of a range of estranged students, stakeholders and college and university named contacts in Scotland. However, as with any qualitative data, its purpose is to provide a breadth of experiences rather than quantify these experiences. Therefore, this research is unable to demonstrate how prevalent these views are across Scotland, which would require a nationally representative quantitative survey (which in turn could not elicit the depth of response of qualitative interviews). As such, the findings from this research cannot be generalised to all estranged students in Scotland. However, they do provide an in-depth insight into the range of issues facing estranged students in Scotland at present.



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