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.
3.1. Contexts of estrangement for students engaging with FE and HE in Scotland
This section explores the origins of students' estrangement from their parents/legal guardians/carers. It considers the factors which led to their estrangement, before exploring the definitions, declarations and evidencing of estrangement.
3.1.1 Reasons for estrangement
The students reported a number of different, though often overlapping factors, that had resulted in their estrangement. The reasons they gave for their estrangement tallied with the views of named contacts and key stakeholders, who were also asked why estrangement had occurred among students in their own working experiences.
One of the main themes reported was that there had been familial breakdown during childhood, which had resulted in difficult and at times "toxic" relationships between parents, step-parents and the students, as well as their siblings and other family members. Reasons cited for the familial breakdown included parental alcohol and drug addiction, mental health issues, paternal and maternal affairs and parental bereavement. As a consequence of familial breakdown, a few student respondents said that they had to adopt a carer role within the family when growing up, mostly for siblings and step-siblings, but also at times for a parent with mental health or addiction issues. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse were reported to have been experienced by the students, which at times had resulted in self-harm, suicide attempts, the involvement of police, social services as well as hospitalisation.
"I had to cut off my family because of the toxicity associated with a few things. Yes, there were also quite a lot of issues that were going on, like affairs and stuff and it was just not a healthy environment to be in family-wise." (Estranged student)
Another theme that was said to have been responsible for student estrangement was cultural conflict, particularly with the parents' religion, ethnicity or way of life. Examples were given of families moving to Scotland or Europe from non-European countries, and the students and their siblings adapting to the new environment and, in the eyes of their parents, rejecting or becoming opposed to their own cultural background. This was commonly related to the students stating that they were gay, bisexual and/or trans, resulting in parental rejection. However, it was also the case that, for example, young people enjoying more freedom and not adopting what was viewed as a more traditional role, or rejecting proposed forced marriages, also led to abusive parental relationships.
"You essentially have no freewill, whatever your elders decide is what goes pretty much, and they also had very sort of…backward views, I guess, it was very narrow minded. So, homophobia, racism, that was just a normal thing in the household. So, I'd always felt estranged even when I had contact with my family, I never felt as if I had a proper relationship with them" (Estranged student)
"My parents were very transphobic and I'm trans, so I wasn't allowed to transition if I lived in their house; it was made very clear, and about two weeks after my birthday I was told to leave." (Estranged student)
In line with the published literature, the majority of the students became estranged between the ages of 17 and 19 years, though a few students reported estrangement at younger and older ages. One factor behind this was related to the young person reaching both a realisation that they had to escape a toxic environment, and an age which allowed them to do so, for example, by starting a college or university course. However, it was also the case that participants said parents and step-parents had threatened to 'throw' them out of the house once they were no longer entitled to age-related benefits, and either this had happened or the young person sought a safer or more welcoming environment.
"Obviously, at the same time, [my parent] didn't want me to, [they] had me on house arrest because if I moved, [they] lost the Carer's Allowance for me, so [they] only wanted me to stay there so [they] could get Carer's Allowance for me." (Estranged student)
Participating students often reported at least some contact with members of the family after becoming estranged. Most commonly, this contact was with siblings and step-siblings, as well as with grandparents. Occasional contact with parents and step-parents was also reported, though these encounters could be quite negative for the student, even if they were not face-to-face. It should be noted that a few of the students were now living in different countries to their parents.
3.1.2 Definitions of estrangement
Students were not always clear what estrangement was, and as a result not all considered themselves estranged when they were no longer in the family home or applying for university or college funding. This had implications for students self-declaring their status to their institutions and impacted on their ability to access appropriate support. Indeed, a number of student respondents only became aware of the concept of estrangement when applying for SAAS funding, or when already enrolled on a course, or when they sought help when they became homeless.
"[I had] no idea, and again, at the time I didn't even know there was support available for that kind of thing. I didn't even consider myself estranged. I didn't know that was the word for it." (Estranged student)
Other students said they were aware of the term and their own personal estrangement. Awareness of estrangement came about through the SAAS application, university and college named contacts, as well as other students and flatmates.
At the time the research was undertaken, the SAAS website (which provided guidance for estranged students) defined estranged students as those who are not in contact with their parents/legal guardians, and where there has been 'a permanent breakdown in your (the student's) relationship, and there is no sign of this being resolved in the future'. A 'permanent' breakdown was defined as having no contact for a least 12 months, with the caveat that applications would be assessed on a case by case basis. Nevertheless, there was a perception amongst those that were interviewed (stakeholders and college and university staff, and students themselves) that 12 months of no contact would be expected by SAAS. Participants viewed this as problematic, pointing out that students with limited, irregular contact with a parent may not fall neatly into the category of estrangement. This was especially the case for those who were recently estranged, or who, in line with the published evidence, became estranged between leaving school and entering college or university and so would find it hard to meet this criterion.
"I'd say probably just very anecdotally in the years that I've now been doing this work, there are so few estranged students I've spoken to who actually were estranged for at least 12 months before they actually went to higher education. These are students already living independently, and it's a very different situation to if you are 17, 18, you're still at home but you desperately want to get out. University is on the horizon, it's your opportunity to go, and that's when you leave. You leave in the summer before going to university, and it just does not work with the policies that are currently in place." (Stakeholder)
Several students expressed concern that fleeting contacts with their parents (e.g. to obtain documentation, to hear of a family bereavement, or to check on their siblings) could leave them in breach of their funding and were fearful of potential consequences. Named contacts shared these concerns, worrying it may dissuade students from coming forward to self-declare, and arguing that there could still be occasional, though emotionally challenging, contact with a parent.
"The understanding that I had from Stand Alone was that there could still be contact, but that contact could be very difficult, very challenging, very triggering. Maybe there's still contact with siblings and extended family and stuff like that, but they in the main would still be considered to be estranged." (College named contact)
Although care experienced students and estranged students are eligible for different levels of funding, named contacts and stakeholders felt there were similarities in the experiences of these groups. Both groups of students were thought to experience similar challenges at home and during their studies. In some cases, challenges were viewed as greater for estranged students because they were not able to draw upon local authority support or corporate parents.
"We just recognised that these are students in very similar situations to those with experience of the care system. In some ways worse off, in the sense that they didn't have parental support and they never had had any local authority support either, so they were really falling between two stools there." (Stakeholder)
There was a perception among students, stakeholders and university and college named contacts that the definitions used, particularly by Scottish Government/SAAS could be restrictive. As a student who was not eligible for SAAS' estranged student support package said:
"I think in order to better support estranged students, you've got to widen the net. Something that happens a lot is that support tends to be specialised on very specific aspects, and there are a lot of exclusion criteria. I think that makes it a lot easier for people to slip through the cracks, and people who really need the support don't get it in the end." (Estranged student)
The stakeholders tended to say that there had been an improvement in terms of the recognition and application of the definition of estrangement in recent years, much of this perceived to be due to the work of Stand Alone in the area. However, named contacts expressed concern that as a result of issues around self-identification there may be more estranged students than university and college staff are aware of, and called for Scottish Government (SG)/SAAS and Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to adopt a unified definition of estrangement.
3.1.3 Declarations of estrangement
The students reported a range of responses in relation to declaring their own estrangement. Most higher education (HE) students had declared they were estranged at the time of making their funding application to SAAS, although as mentioned above, some had not done so as they had not understood themselves to be estranged. However, students were less likely to say they had self-declared to their institution. Often students said they were unaware that this would have allowed them to access additional support. Others reported an overall reluctance to declare themselves as estranged to their institution, citing feelings of embarrassment, pride and shame. Cultural factors also played a part in this:
"In certain cultures, you can't really talk to other people about things. I just felt like they wouldn't understand, and I was kind of embarrassed to have been going through that." (Estranged student)
Where students had declared to their institution, this tended to happen later in their course (sometimes a year or more after enrolment), often at times of crisis. This could be due to becoming aware of their situation, a change in circumstances leading to a funding or accommodation application (e.g. homelessness), legal precedings, or a need to inform teaching staff they needed academic support or were considering dropping out. Late declarations could lead to delays in students receiving financial support through SAAS/their institution or to them being assessed according to their parental income rather than as an independent student (see Section 3.2). Named contacts expressed concern about delays in declarations, with one noting, 'if students aren't disclosing, how do they know what they're entitled to?' Another said:
"They're coming to financial aid. They have not declared to SAAS that they're estranged, so they're getting the minimum loan, no bursary. They have no parental income there, so SAAS are like, 'okay, we presume that your parents are above the threshold at which we would bring that into account'. They're pitching up at financial aid, and financial aid are like, 'okay, you need to speak to [named contact], because he can help you get the funding from SAAS that you're entitled to'. That still happens on an ongoing basis, advising teams at the university, student support officers at the university, financial aid, and internal referrals still happen. Which is a shame really." (University named contact)
Some students said they had adopted an approach of being as open as possible to others in terms of their estrangement and relationships with their parents. A small number of students who became estranged while in school said they had disclosed their experiences to a headteacher or guidance staff, sometimes with support from social work and housing services. These contacts then helped the students inform the colleges and universities that they were estranged. Nonetheless, only one degree student, and one further education (FE) student, had declared their status to their institution prior to the start of their course. Other students noted a reluctance to declare to school staff, fearing the implications of disclosure on their family.
The students gave a varied response in terms of staff who had been made aware of their estrangement. Directors of study, named contacts, study advisers, health and wellbeing advisers, lecturers and those involved in student funding were all cited as those who had been informed by the students. Generally, students declared to a member of teaching staff rather than to named contacts.
In terms of institutional data on estranged students, named contacts tended to state that the current figures they had for estranged students were unreliable, and contrasted the difference between the 100-plus number of students who ticked the 'estranged' box, and the 15-30 students they actively supported. Concerns were expressed that under-18s were not declaring themselves as estranged. It was thought that possible reasons for this were that some were dropping out of courses within the first few weeks of term or individuals were ticking the box incorrectly. It was also possible that students were reporting estrangement during the academic year (either due to lack of awareness of estrangement or losing contact with family during the course) after the figures had been collated. Stakeholders added that care-experienced, young carers and estranged students are often counted together as one group, when their needs can be quite different.
3.1.4 Experiences and understanding of evidencing estrangement
The students gave a mixed response to the process of evidencing estrangement to SAAS, universities and colleges. For some, particularly those who had been declared homeless, the process was relatively straightforward, with support, advice and confirmation provided by council officials, such as housing officers. Others (e.g. those living with partners/friends or parents of their partner/friend) found the process more difficult to navigate as they did not have ready access to information that proved their estrangement. Some college and university named contacts said they would be able to accept a students' word as evidence of their estrangement, but students were not always aware of this. Furthermore, some FE students said they were unsure which 'box to tick' when making their college bursary applications. Accessing appropriate funding was problematic for two students who were born outside the UK and struggled to prove settled status. This is not an issue which is exclusive to estrangement, but this nonetheless meant both students had no access to any form of government funding or parental financial support.
"Quite a lot just with all the circumstantial stuff and of course financially as well because there are so many little loopholes and policies that kind of can mess you up a bit if you're estranged. I think people that don't know the legalities and stuff, they would probably struggle with it a lot because some of the terminology and stuff, it's just really hard to understand. It's not something you would expect or imply in your head going into it. Then you can get hit on the head with all these random things that you didn't actually know you had to do." (Estranged student)
The process of evidencing estrangement was perceived as stressful by both students and those who worked with them. Students registered as estranged with SAAS are not required to contact their parents to evidence their estrangement. However, some students and named contacts spoke of instances where students felt they had to contact their parents to obtain documents relating to parental income, highlighting a lack of awareness among some students and their institutions around support for estranged students. In one case, an FE student struggled to convince their college they were estranged, noting how their situation did not fit into a funding system used to dealing with more traditional students who still have the support of their parents.
"Because I said I wasn't paying my own rent, because I was staying with my partner's parents, they were asking me for my parent's income and I said, 'look, I can't really get that'. It took me months and it was like just replies of replies to funding saying, 'look, this is what's happened, I can't get my parent's income'. I eventually had to get in touch with my mum and hope that she would give me like her income and stuff, but it just made the situation so much more complicated. I eventually explained that…and they eventually kind of agreed basically." (Estranged student)
"A student who comes to you and advises that they're estranged from their family, I almost feel split in two because half of me, obviously, wants to support them in whatever way I can. But the other half of me thinks, 'well, I need them to be able to prove that they are actually estranged'. You feel that you make them jump through additional hurdles, probably make them repeat their story to you and you don't know how many other folk they've had to tell the same story to. So, you're split in two because you want to try and make it as easy as possible for them and provide all the support you can, but on the other hand you need some evidence." (University named contact)
University and, in particular, college named contacts reported that they could be more flexible than they perceived SAAS to be. They noted, for example, they could accept the word of students themselves if they said that they were estranged, though this varied by institution. There was also an aspiration that one application, such as the SAAS application, may then feed through to all other relevant parts of the system for the student. The stakeholders shared these views, and also added that there should be no need for 12 month estrangement eligibility for student applications.
3.2. Impact of estrangement on finance
The impact of estrangement on estranged students' finances tended to be the greatest challenge faced by interviewees, and was very closely related to accommodation insecurity, mental health and wellbeing, and academic progress and transitions. This section explores the financial challenges faced by estranged students. It considers levels of financial anxiety, students' sources of income, and their experiences of financial hardship. It explores issues relating to debt, their experiences of accessing discretionary funds and of managing their finances outside of term. It ends with a discussion of how financial support might be improved for estranged students.
3.2.1 Financial anxiety
Students reported high levels of anxiety around money and not having enough to live off without parental support. This was linked to the high cost of accommodation and the threat of homelessness, as well as worries about debt (from student loans and elsewhere). For many, financial stresses often worsened students' already fragile mental health arising from trauma caused by their estrangement.
Few students reported being able to afford anything other then the essentials, let alone 'luxuries' associated with socialising. Students were very aware that their experiences of college/university differed markedly to their peers as a result of their estrangement, but their financial struggles added to their sense of isolation.
"Now, because I've gone completely through all my savings, sometimes I just feel like I don't even know what to do. I'm so stressed to the point, right, I just don't even care anymore. I lose all hope and, yes, I think that's when I quite spiral out of control a bit, just because money is so important that if you don't have it, it feels so horrible, and you just feel so alone. I think that's how I feel is, I always constantly feel stressed. I constantly feel depressed and anxious, and I have to make up excuses [not to socialise] with my friends." (Estranged student)
Whilst the distress caused by financial worries was most critical at the point at which students first became estranged, these experiences tended to have a lasting impact. Some interviewees in their 30s who became estranged in their teens were still grappling with the impact of financial anxiety a decade or more later.
The time spent worrying about money and the need to supplement their SAAS/institution's support also had a significant impact on students' perceived academic attainment – both before entering FE/HE and during their time at college or university. This was partly as a result of having to work more part-time hours during term-time, but also because it was hard to focus on studying while worrying about how to support themselves and where they might live. This was even greater for those with dependents.
"If I don't have enough money from SAAS, I have to work more, which in turn impacts the amount of hours I spend studying, so I feel like my grades aren't as good as they should be, and it is also the thought of - I don't know about other people, but for myself, money is my main problem, and I feel like it's the main thing that is holding me back from reaching my full potential, because I can't stop stressing about my finances." (Estranged student)
3.2.2 Sources of income
Students relied on various sources of income, as summarised in Table 4.
|Number of students (n=25)|
|SAAS student loan||16|
|SAAS: Independent Student Bursary (maximum)||11|
|SAAS: Independent Student Bursary (lower level)||3|
|SAAS: Assessed as Young Student (with/out bursary)||3|
|College discretionary funding||4|
|University discretionary funding||5|
|Paid work during term-time||13|
|Financial support from extended family||3|
All but two HE students received a living cost loan (one was deemed ineligible for SAAS support due to not meeting residency criteria at the time they started their studies, while the other chose not to take the loan due to concerns about debt).
Three students aged 18 to 19 said they had been assessed as Young Students and received lower amounts of student support than they would had they been assessed as Independent Students and received an Independent Student Bursary (ISB) (one received only a loan and no bursary). Two said that they had not declared their estrangement to SAAS when applying for support, partly as a result of embarrassment. A third student became estranged days before starting university, by which point they had already applied to SAAS as a Young Student. A further three estranged students were aged over 25, but did not receive the maximum levels of ISB. All six students had very limited funding from which to draw upon, with some receiving the minimum loan with no bursary.
Four HE students participating in this research received a scholarship of some kind aimed at estranged students; either from their own institution or from an external funding body.
Four of the seven FE student participants said they received the FE bursary, while the remainder received some form of benefit (Universal Credit or Personal Independence Payment, (PIP)). Often they also received college discretionary funds as well. Several FE students mentioned that their bursaries had been reduced or stopped as a result of low attendance. Some of these students had missed classes to do paid work, while others were disabled but struggled to provide evidence of their disabilities to the college.
"Money is a struggling thing right now. The college have stopped my bursary because I've had more than six absences since January. […] It has meant that I'm now struggling with money more than ever. [My partner and I are] having to borrow from friends, borrow from family just to make ends meet every month." (Estranged student)
3.2.3 Views on student funding
Many students deemed current levels of funding (be that from SAAS or FE colleges) insufficient to pay for essentials, let alone allow them to join in with the wider 'student experience'. Even students who received the maximum levels of support through the ISB, and in some cases scholarships as well, frequently complained that most of their income was taken up with the cost of accommodation, leaving them little to pay for bills, food, study materials, travel, childcare, laptops, and other costs associated with studying.
"Awful. Honestly awful, because as soon as my SAAS comes in, it goes straight to rent. My rent is going up next year. Usually, I would have say £1,000 bursary to myself to spend on food and stuff, but because my rent is going up, I can't have it anymore, I have to pay it into rent. If I didn't have the scholarship, I genuinely wouldn't have any money. It would be really bad." (Estranged student)
Only two students lived in university accommodation, and both were scholarship recipients. For most estranged students, student accommodation (university owned or private), and to a slightly lesser extent, privately rented accommodation, was considered out of reach on account of it being too expensive. Students who lived with relatives, their partner's or a friend's parents (free of charge or made a small contribution to the running of the household), found their money went further, as did those in council housing (often as a result of having previously been homeless).
"I think I would've probably felt differently if I was living in student accommodation this year because I don't think the loan is enough to get by if you live in student accommodation. The maximum loan - which I'm receiving - last year was £775 every single month, but student accommodation is almost £800 a month, most of the time, for most of the ones that I know." (Estranged student)
While cheaper accommodation eased financial worries, even those who received scholarships, or had their rent paid by the council/college nonetheless expressed high levels of financial anxiety and experienced hardship.
Students reported varying degrees of financial hardship, depending on their sources of income and whether they were funding the costs of their accommodation themselves. Some students survived on very little, especially those who were assessed as Young Students; were ineligible for SAAS support; awaiting Universal Credit payments; or who had chosen not to take on a loan due to concerns about debt. These students were living off overdrafts, income from part-time work or handouts. Table 4 shows that 13 students interviewed undertook paid work during term-time, with their hours ranging from 3 to 40 hours per week. While most did less than 20 hours per week, three students worked more than this, with two working the equivalent of full-time hours alongside their studies. Several students said they used food banks regularly, had skipped meals or had to eat cheaply surviving on low-cost foods such as noodles or beans.
"The thing is because, so I had luck, so to say, because I don't really eat breakfast, but I still had to choose, do I eat for three to four days, once a day, or do I eat twice a day, but for two days? That was stressful because I had to always think, okay, do I want to eat and feel well, or do I want to save money, so that I know that at the end of the month, I can still eat something?" (Estranged student)
Students spoke of the difficulty of furnishing their accommodation. Some had gone without flooring or curtains, had no working oven, or had no bedding. The cost of living crisis was frequently mentioned as an additional challenge, with some looking for ways to reduce their energy use. Travel costs could be considerable, particularly for those living with partners/friends/extended family who often commuted considerable distances to their college/university. Overall, there was a sense of estranged students feeling further isolated by their precarious finances.
"I had no work and the student loan thing; you have to pay the money back into the system. I mean, I'm not getting benefits, you can't have benefits when you're a full-time student and the bills, the inflation spike, and the cost of living, you feel like you're just surviving basically. You're not going out, you're just staying in, working on your computer and that's pretty much how life is now these days." (Estranged student)
For those with children, the cost of nursery and afterschool care was a significant concern. Several who received the childcare allowance from their institution noted the gap between their childcare funding and the actual cost. Some students were also financially supporting their estranged siblings, and struggled to provide for themselves and those they were supporting. None of these students made reference to accessing the dependents' grant.
At the point of estrangement, students often left home with very little, sometimes only the clothes they were wearing. For these students in particular, the timing at which they were able to access financial support through SAAS or their institution was critical. However, some reported that issues around self-declaration and evidencing estrangement had delayed their funding. Named contacts pointed to gaps in provision in terms of funding for student accommodation, with universities generally asking for accommodation deposits to be paid in the summer, and SAAS funding not being paid until September. Without knowing their estranged student intake in advance, there was little universities felt they could do in terms of putting support provision in place.
Being in debt in one form or another was common for the estranged students in this research, and played a key role in money worries. The types of debts included: overdrafts; debts owed to Universal Credit having received overpayments; debts for childcare owed to nurseries; credit card and utility bill debts. Often debts related to accommodation costs, and this was especially the case for those who had been homeless at some point. Several students who lived in council housing were in rent arrears, while others owed money for homeless accommodation. One student had been taken to court as a result of rent arrears. Some students also mentioned debts they had mistakenly taken on for their parents.
Related to debt issues, students often noted how poor their money management skills were without parents to provide examples as to how to pay bills and manage their spending. Several students said they had impulsive spending habits, partly due to not knowing how to manage their money, but also related to having little money as a child. The majority, however, said they had learned to keep a very close eye on their spending.
"You don't know how to deal with debt, and you don't know how to get out of debt. Especially when you've got mental health problems and things like that, the last thing you want to be thinking about is like organising your finances." (Estranged student)
"It means that I need to be a lot more aware of what I'm doing at all times because there are people that will just think, 'oh its fine if I go way over budget, I'll just ask my mum or my dad for some more money'. Obviously, I don't exactly have that privilege, which means that I need to constantly be very aware of, 'okay, am I going to be able to spend this much money? Can I actually afford this, do I really need this, or do I just want this?'" (Estranged student)
HE students, most of whom had taken out student loans for living costs, raised concerns about having student loan debt. The thought of repaying these placed an additional burden on the students. One student had been so concerned about student loan debt that they did not take the loan, instead living off the £1000 bursary and paid work. Others described the negative impact of being in debt.
"You have to get certain grades for this, and it's a lot harder to study for things when you have the crushing weight of debt on your shoulders. It impacts so many facets of life, just your sleep, how you can focus. It impacts how you deal with stress in general." (Estranged student)
Some HE students, stakeholders and institutional named contacts complained of what they viewed as unfairness built into SAAS support for estranged students. They highlighted that students from the lowest income backgrounds who live with their parents receive a higher bursary and lower student loan than those receiving ISB.
"How is it fair that a person who is estranged from their parents and run away or something has to also pay back more money? That's weird." (Estranged student)
Participants also made comparisons between the support provided to care experienced students who received a full bursary and have no debt and estranged students who accrue higher levels of debt for their living costs. Many participants felt that the challenges faced by the two groups of students were similar, and that, in some cases, estranged students were more vulnerable, because they did not receive the additional financial support from the Scottish Government.
"I feel a bit annoyed that I could be getting more money if I'd been put into a care home instead of being put into a hostel, when if I was in a care home I would have been looked after, and in a hostel, I had to do everything myself. […] I became homeless two weeks after my 16th birthday. I was still under 18. I had no support from anybody." (Estranged student)
"Care experienced students over recent years have had huge developments in terms of the Care Experienced Bursary and the Summer Accommodation Grant, where you can actually build that financial base to study independently. Estranged students, it's actually the polar opposite where there is typically less bursary and more of a loan element, and no support over the summer." (University named contact)
3.2.5 Discretionary funding
Colleges and universities' discretionary or hardship funds (the terms were used interchangeably by participants) were a key source of income for students. These funds are designed for students experiencing financial hardship of some sort. They are open to all eligible students to apply, though the guidance prioritises funds for some groups, including estranged students (as well as students who are carers, care experienced students, students with dependent children, part-time students and those impacted financially by COVID-19). Students apply directly to their institution, and are generally expected to provide some form of evidence as to why they need the fund. More than a third of the estranged students (n=9) interviewed in this research had received discretionary funding of some kind from their institution (four from colleges, and five from universities).
Named contacts from colleges and universities, and students themselves, noted how reliant estranged students often were on discretionary funding, given that they had few other sources of income to access.
"I think it's one of the only sources that the students can apply to. Where care experienced students get so much - which is great, and they've got the Care Experienced Bursary and everything - but I still feel like estranged students very much fall through the cracks and don't have the same legal sort of rights or funding. So, they're very reliant on the discretionary fund with us." (University named contact)
There was significant variation reported as to how institutions administered discretionary funds. This was particularly the case in terms of FE, where named contacts pointed to differences between colleges in how the funds were distributed. Some college named contacts said they used discretionary funds to automatically 'top up' estranged students' FE bursaries to make them equivalent to the Care Experienced Student Bursary (CESB). In this way, some of the estranged student interviewees had their rent paid, thereby reducing their worries considerably.
"My financial situation, if it wasn't for the support that I've had from the college, I wouldn't be able to be in education at the moment. I know that I would have to be working to even keep my house going. So, I'm grateful that the college was able to put that extra place and support for students to get into education." (Estranged student)
The majority of college named contacts, however, said their college did not do this. Instead, they assessed students on a case by case basis. Both stakeholders and college named contacts highlighted that the current discretionary fund guidance from SFC lacks information specifically relating to how these funds should be administered to estranged students in FE. Some suggested that this could lead to a 'postcode lottery' in terms of how FE students are supported.
"I think the SFC guidance, where often, they'll say, 'Well, it's up to an institution's discretion', and then that's challenging because that then means that the discretion in one institution is different to another, so a student may get something in one and then progress somewhere and not get that. […] I think the guidance from SFC should be clearer." (College named contact)
There was also some variation among the universities in terms of how they interpreted definitions of estrangement which impacted the ability of some students to access support. For example, some universities would not allow students who were not eligible for support from SAAS to access discretionary funds, while others administered discretionary funding whether or not the student had accessed SAAS support. This led to one student dropping out of their degree, though they later returned and successfully accessed funding.
Estranged students who had received or applied for discretionary funding expressed mixed views in terms of the ease of doing so. While some found it a straightforward process, others found it more difficult providing all the documents required. Several students from both FE and HE had accessed additional support through their institution as part of funds set aside to assist students with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Often students said they had applied for discretionary funding to cover their rent during the summer when their funding stopped. One estranged student was awaiting a decision from their institution after not being able to get enough hours from their paid work.
"I am trying to find more work, but right now my job won't give me overtime… So, it's like really bad and I had filled in an application basically to help with my rent for the next few months before I start getting my loan and SAAS again in case I can't find a job in time, but they haven't got back to me, so I'm a little stressed about that, but it's okay. I'll just live off of raisins." (Estranged student)
One student said their application for discretionary funding had been turned down. Named contacts noted that some students are turned down from discretionary funding because they are unable to demonstrate that the available balance in their bank accounts is low enough. This could exclude estranged students who had accrued savings to get them through the summer period with no funding.
"It might be particular to our institution, I don't know, but certainly a massive, massive barrier that we come up against time and time again is that for our estranged students, the money that they have is all that they have. They do not have a financial support network; they are routinely getting turned away from hardship funding because they are doing their best to work multiple jobs, to save any money that is coming in. Therefore, they do not qualify often for hardship funding - which they very genuinely need to access." (University named contact)
Some estranged students were unaware that discretionary funding was available to them, or that estranged students are listed as a priority group for these funds. This was linked to wider issues about students not understanding estrangement and a lack of awareness of available support.
"I didn't know it was an option and I didn't know I qualified for it, so it was being made aware of it. When I was submitting my application, I was really doubtful. I was like, there's no chance, all the other folk will need this. I kind of felt really quite guilty for it, but then they were like, you're having a hard time, I was like, 'thanks, appreciate it'." (Estranged student)
Among those who were aware of the funds, students reported finding out about the discretionary funds from other students, or from named contacts or lecturers, but they were rarely aware of these early on in their courses. Several estranged students expressed a reluctance to apply, citing feelings of guilt, pride, shame and embarrassment. Often students suggested that others were probably in a worse situation than they were themselves.
"I didn't really want to apply for it because I feel like it's kind of a pride thing for me. I'm kind of in this mindset where I'm like, I got myself into this mess, I should get myself out of it, kind of thing." (Estranged student)
3.2.6 Summer finances
A key trigger for having to apply for discretionary funding was the lack of SAAS or FE bursary payments over the summer months. This tied in with the difficulties experienced by some students in finding accommodation over summer (see Section 3.3).
"During the summer, a lot of students will be struggling so much without their SAAS. I think SAAS is what a lot of people use to pay most of their rent." (Estranged student)
The interviews with students in this research took place in May/June 2022, just as students received their final student support payments until the coming September. Most planned to try and find paid employment over the summer, but few had positions lined up. Some students spoke of the difficulties of finding enough work to support them over the summer. Several already in employment noted they would not be able to increase their hours in their current role and would have to seek alternative employment. Students were very much aware of how their summers differed to their non-estranged peers.
"We have to struggle trying to find money when we are in summertime, and then people who are supported by their family can literally just go back to their family and they don't have to pay stuff. […] We shouldn't just leave people with no money for the summer. If you are also, if you are going about passing your exams and stuff, you shouldn't also then have to worry about getting a job at the same time." (Estranged student)
Stakeholders and named contacts were particularly vocal about the need for funding to be provided throughout the summer, highlighting the potential impact of this on drop out.
"I know it's good for your self-development to get a part-time job but for some people they can't do that if they've got caring responsibilities; if they've got mental health issues; if it's just the area they live in is really experiencing high levels of unemployment. That's when they have to start choosing between eating over the summer or going back to uni. That's a real pressure point for students from low income backgrounds." (Stakeholder)
Stakeholders and named contacts also highlighted the challenges for estranged students who lose all their financial and accommodation support at the point of graduation. To address this, they suggested a number of ways to improve outcomes for estranged students after graduation, for example: extending guarantorships and access to student accommodation beyond graduation, and exploring bridging bursaries to provide financial support.
3.2.7 Improving student support for estranged students
There was significant demand from stakeholders, named contacts and students for funding for estranged students to be amended so it is similar to that of the CESB. Participants said providing estranged students with a larger bursary would help to reduce some of the stress experienced by estranged students, and ensure student loan debt did not act as a deterrent. More widely, participants called for improved communication of the additional support available to estranged students.
"I think better communication, because if folk don't know then they're not going to apply. […] I'm really fortunate that it worked out like that, but for some people they're going to look at the price tag and they just won't apply because they're not going to be able to. If they know that the support and the funding is there for them, it might just take that feeling of exclusion away, if that makes sense. I don't really know how SAAS works. I don't really know the whole concept of having to pay it back and what not, but maybe recognising, maybe making bursaries available rather than loans for estranged students." (Estranged student)
"But I do think the support package needs to be developed completely, and there's a model there with care experience students, but estranged students tend to be very vulnerable and, as I said, the trauma tends to be quite live and at the moment." (University named contact)
Stakeholders, named contacts and students, however, also suggested that, given the costs of accommodation, the £8,100 provided through the CESB may not be enough. Some stakeholders and named contacts called for this to be supplemented with an accommodation bursary. Others highlighted the importance of increasing bursaries so that they are in line with current inflation, rather being pegged to the 2017 Living Wage as current levels of CESB are. This would address students' worries about rising inflation and the cost of living crisis.
Students were often unaware of the existence of discretionary funding, while others were reluctant to apply or had been refused it. Students called for better promotion of the funds to help normalise this type of funding and make students feel more comfortable in asking for help.
Stakeholders and named contacts requested 'clearer' guidance for FE as to how colleges could distribute discretionary funding to estranged students. Participants would like to have more information on the range of ways discretionary funding could be used to support students. Linked to this, stakeholders and staff from both FE and HE highlighted the potential benefits of expanding corporate parenting to include estranged students, noting that this parity of esteem would ensure fewer estranged students fall through the cracks.
There was a lack of understanding generally as to the type of financial support available to estranged students via their institution/SAAS. Students were not always aware of whether they were assessed as a Young or Independent Student, and of the implications of this for the funding they received. Often, it was only once students met their named contact that they were made aware of the range of financial support available to them.
3.3. Impact of estrangement on accommodation
Closely related to the financial impact of estrangement, accommodation issues were a considerable challenge for students. Experiences of homelessness were common among the interviewees. They highlighted the inaccessibility and instability of some types of accommodation, and the challenges associated with accessing guarantorships and finding secure housing outwith term-time. This section explores these impacts, concluding with a summary of participants' suggestions for ways to improve estranged students' experiences of accommodation.
3.3.1 Current living situation
Estranged students' current living situations were varied, as summarised in Table 5.
|Type of accommodation||Number of students (n=25)|
|Living with friends/relatives||6|
Most students lived in either council housing or privately rented accommodation. Those in council housing had often experienced homelessness, and tended to feel more financially secure in this cheaper type of accommodation despite the poor conditions and what participants' described as 'dodgy' locations of some accommodation. Those students living in privately rented accommodation had mixed experiences, noting the high cost of rent and bills, and sometimes the poor quality of living environments. However, it was mentioned that this provided them with certain freedoms, safety and security that they had not experienced before in more temporary accommodation or in their living situation prior to estrangement.
Six students lived with extended family, partners or friend's parents, something which offered both financial security and emotional support, but also came with feelings of guilt as a result of relying on others for help with accommodation. The only students living in student accommodation received scholarships of some kind.
3.3.2 Securing stable accommodation
A key challenge in terms of securing stable accommodation was the high cost of accommodation. Many students deemed the cost of private accommodation, and to an even greater extent student accommodation, to be too high given available levels of student funding. This limited the options available to students.
"I've looked [at private accommodation], but everything is more expensive than what I already pay. I would go through social housing; I just haven't had a chance to look at the application yet. I already know myself that the process is quite long, like it can take a year or two to actually find a place, and even then, it might not be something that you want or isn't in your budget." (Estranged student)
Those living in halls of residence noted the benefits of meeting other students and forming good relationships with their peers, but the expense remained a concern.
"There's a lot of perks about [student accommodation]. It's just, yes, I like it, I've made a lot of friends through the accommodation as well. I never feel alone, I always have someone there, and my flat mates, they're really understanding…the downside of it is just how expensive it is." (Estranged student)
In looking for alternative, more affordable accommodation, estranged students were more vulnerable to ending up in unpleasant or unsafe living environments which did not suit their needs. Several mentioned that they lived in deprived areas with high levels of antisocial behaviour.
Students frequently described needing to move accommodation regularly because they lacked a secure, long-term living situation. They found themselves moving between different types of temporary accommodation and/or the houses of friends, relatives and partners. Students explained that frequent moves had a negative impact on their wellbeing.
"[Moving a lot is] really hard, because you never really feel like you have a home. It's just kind of like a place where you stay, where you know in a couple of months, you're going to have to pack your things and move again. It gets really hard to settle in places like that." (Estranged student)
"I was just constantly having to move around because I didn't have the financial security and stuff like that to get into a good flat, to give myself a secure home life so I was going for cheap rubbish places and putting myself in an environment that made me really unhappy so that led to me moving again, moving again in search of a place where I could live happily. In turn that obviously impacts everywhere else in your life, it's like a basic necessity, I would say in a way, to have a secure place you can call home, you know." (Estranged student)
Students who lived with family or the parents of partners/friends tended to say that they felt less alone and thrived as a result of being made part of a home. Students spoke of the relief of finding stable housing after having experienced frequent moves, and the benefits this had on their wellbeing. However, students who lived with family or friends noted that this had the potential to strain relationships. Despite being told they were welcome to stay, some perceived that they were a burden and were concerned they could be asked to leave at any time. A few comments were elicited which showed that these students were uncomfortable that they might be putting others at risk of legal action from their landlords as a result of subletting.
"There was just a lot of moving, a lot of insecurity, and I was like, 'Well, I'm not meant to be staying here,' so that would put my friends and everyone else in trouble. So, I ended up moving here, and now I'm like, okay. So, I'm being told I can consider this as home, but I am like, oh, on the 'what if' chance, like, what if they're like, 'You need to move out,' or something?" (Estranged student)
Moving house, whether frequently or not, was challenging for a lot of the estranged students. These students spoke of the practical difficulties they faced when needing to move their belongings without the parental support other students received, and some felt alienated from their peers because of this.
"Whilst I was at college, I moved into my house that I'm currently living at and I wasn't able to ask my parents for help. Even as simple as getting a moving truck or asking them to help me move things, and I was quite conflicted in the classroom because my college mates couldn't understand that." (Estranged student)
For those who moved into unfurnished accommodation, the cost and practicality of furnishing their new place was an issue. A few students experienced moving into housing with no provisions, and no money to address this. Others found ways to furnish their accommodation for a low cost, searching for cheap options online, utilising the help of friends and Facebook groups, and applying for grants.
"It was really hard in the beginning because when we moved, there was nothing, there was absolutely nothing. No floors, nothing, absolutely nothing. We didn't have beds." (Estranged student)
The additional challenges and responsibilities faced by estranged students contributed to them feeling like they had to become an adult more quickly than their peers. They felt apprehensive about figuring out how to live independently and spoke about the other important relationships they turned to for guidance.
"It's only the second time that I've ever had a flat to myself, so I'm still trying to learn how to be an adult living on my own - which is difficult at times. Dishes build up, the washing needs done, but at the end of the day, no one else is going to do them so I have to." (Estranged student)
Despite many students describing the adjustment to independent living as challenging and overwhelming at times, positive aspects of living independently as an estranged student were also mentioned. These related to having greater freedom and control over their own life and becoming more 'resourceful'.
"To me it was like a fresh slate. To me it was like, right, this is a secure bed that nobody can kick me out of because it's mine, it's my responsibility to pay for it. [...] It was my space; I could lock the door and nobody had a say on it. It was so different. Living with folk my own age, it was just a different environment, but it was really positive." (Estranged student)
3.3.3 Non-term-time accommodation
Securing stable accommodation outwith term-time was a key challenge for estranged students. Institutional and private student accommodation lets often correlated with term dates, leaving some students without anywhere to live during the university holidays. While some universities offered year-round accommodation, this type of support was not available at all universities. Where year-round accommodation was available, students and named contacts discussed how some students still had to move between university accommodation over summer. The anxiety caused by this uncertainty could be resolved by enabling students to stay in the same university accommodation all year without having to move between rooms or locations.
"I'm supporting a student at the minute who hasn't yet heard where she needs to move to within the university estate, because she needs to vacate her current room. They're doing their best to get in place all the requirements that she has, but I guess even with the 365 offer, there are tension points where the fear of homelessness is very real and very anxiety-making." (University named contact)
The additional cost of funding year-round accommodation was also raised by students and named contacts who noted that the lack of summer funding meant estranged students had to work to cover their accommodation costs. The cost of funding summer accommodation in student halls was prohibitive for some.
"I'd rather be homeless than stay [in student accommodation] because it's just too expensive…I'd rather leave." (Estranged student)
Estranged students who did use non-term-time student accommodation reported feeling marked out as different from those who could return to their family homes during the holidays, and these feelings of isolation were exacerbated by living on an empty university campus. However, other students overcame this issue by relying on relatives or friends to provide them with temporary accommodation to cover the holiday period, though this was not an option for all.
"I was living with some friends in the summer - because they don't let you live in student accommodation – and I just used the emergency Covid money I got to pay rent there. I was reasonably fine, but yes, food-wise I think I survived off toast and multivitamins that entire summer." (Estranged student)
In order to rent private accommodation and, in many cases, institutions' own student accommodation, students are required to provide the name of someone (usually a parent/guardian) who can act as a guarantor in the event that they are unable to pay their rent. When asked if they had ever felt any impacts of not being able to provide a guarantor, about half of the students interviewed said they had not needed to use a guarantor for their living situation. These students mostly lived in council housing or with relatives, friends or a partner. Of those who reported requiring a guarantor, around half were able to name someone they knew whilst others had to pay a large upfront sum to resolve the issue, such as several months of rent in advance, which most could not afford. Otherwise they were only able to consider alternative accommodation not requiring the endorsement of a guarantor.
"Because I didn't have a guarantor, anyone to ask, I literally had to loan a couple of thousand. I think it worked out to just under £2,000 to be able to go apply for accommodation via the non-guarantor approach." (Estranged student)
Students and stakeholders described the difficulty in obtaining a guarantor as a barrier to securing privately rented accommodation. Some students said they had lost out on flats they were interested in, while others had been forced to move into (more expensive) student accommodation as some institutions did not require a guarantor for their own accommodation.
"I was quite close to getting [a flat], but as soon as they got my paperwork and I had ticked the form saying I didn't have a guarantor, they were like, 'We can't have you', because whatever reason - I don't remember the reason. I told them that I would pay the rent in advance, but they said that they just don't want to take the risk or something like that." (Estranged student)
In lieu of a parent to act as a guarantor, several students said they had used a relative or friend/partner's relative. Students gave the impression that they were reliant on their connections with individuals to navigate the guarantor process. Some also noted discomfort in having to rely on individuals around them who were not their parents.
"I was very fortunate to have my [relatives]. Had that not been the case, I probably wouldn't have this flat. I probably wouldn't have gotten into halls last year. It would have been a whole different ballgame." (Estranged student)
"I think that would be really hard for me to find somebody that would [be a guarantor], because I wouldn't like to put my [relative] in that position. It's not really her responsibility." (Estranged student)
Some Scottish universities have established their own guarantorship schemes to support students who do not have someone to act as a guarantor. Stakeholders and named contacts highlighted how these schemes varied considerably by institution in terms of whether they applied only to an institution's own accommodation versus those rented privately; the level of rent which they guaranteed; whether students on joint tenancies were covered; whether the number of guarantorships were limited; and whether estranged students were defined as a priority group for guarantorships.
Amongst students studying at institutions with guarantorship schemes in place, there was mixed awareness of these schemes. Some knew their institution offered this and had researched it before attending the university, whilst others were unaware that this sort of support existed. Despite the existence of these institutional guarantorship schemes, none of the students interviewed mentioned having successfully used their university as a guarantor. The key limitation identified by students was that often they only applied to institutions' own accommodation rather than private rentals.
"The university said that they're able to be your guarantor within university accommodation, but outside of that, they're not able to do anything to help, other than advising us on charities or something that do guarantorship or something like that. All of the charities and stuff that they've pointed me in the direction to still need a guarantor, so it's not really helpful anyway." (Estranged student)
Students noted that the restrictions of institutional guarantorship schemes rendered them useless for most living situations: monthly rent maximums did not cover the average prices of accommodation in cities, such as Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and the types of tenancy agreements covered by institutions were not the type commonly used in the private sector, e.g., students were not able to use them for joint tenancies.
"[Not having a guarantor] means students who are estranged and might have found support of a unit for the first time ever in their life, a group of friends who love them and care for them and support them, and they want to live with them and have that almost a family they have chosen while in education. They can't access that because the university won't support them to access that kind of tenancy." (Stakeholder)
For those who had tried to access institutional guarantorships, some reported that despite having a scheme in place, their institution was unable to help as they did not have sufficient supply for the number of students needing this support. One student explained that their institution suspended applications before they were able to apply, due to high demand.
The Scottish Government has committed to explore whether a programme of guarantorship can be created in partnership with colleges and universities to assist those students who are unable to provide a guarantor. Students, stakeholders and named contacts were largely supportive of this idea. Students highlighted potential benefits in terms of physical and mental support. Stakeholders also emphasised the importance of improving institutional guarantorship schemes for increasing estranged students' feelings of stability and normality.
"I think it would also be so much easier for estranged students to leave the toxic environments they're in." (Estranged student)
"I think it would make a big difference. I think it would take a lot of stress off people, and it wouldn't, yes, it wouldn't be a worry that they're going to get kicked out of their home because they can't pay rent one month." (Estranged student)
Both students and stakeholders felt that more could be done to promote the help currently available to students regarding institutional guarantorship. However, promotion is tied in with funding and the types of guarantor schemes universities are able to offer. Therefore, they emphasised that existing schemes would need to be adequately funded to be able to cope with any demand that arises from better promotion.
"I would love to be able to actually promote our guarantor scheme really loud to all our students, but because we're restricted to number of places in our own accommodation, we don't support external private accommodation, we don't promote it." (University named contact)
"I think the advantage of that would probably be that students would be more aware of it if the university specifically offers it. I know that my university, I think, actually does that, but it's not as out in the open, like you have to look for it a bit more. I think if students knew about this, then perhaps students who aren't estranged at the moment, for example, but are in really bad living situations, might feel more secure in knowing that they have somewhere safe to move out to." (Estranged student)
A key area for improvement raised by many students and stakeholders related to broadening institutional guarantorship to better support estranged students to access cheaper private sector housing.
"I think it would be a lot better for students if it was in private. I think nine times out of ten, student accommodation is so much more expensive than private renting. I think if they were to do guarantorship all over university accommodation, it wouldn't really help in my experience." (Estranged student)
Among stakeholders and named contacts there was a real appetite for a standardised and universal institutional guarantor scheme, potentially one which replicates current private guarantor schemes but without the charges associated with those.
"I think for a scheme like this, it shouldn't rely on the differences of individual institutions. It should be a national thing if at all possible." (Stakeholder)
Some stakeholders and named contacts suggested simplifying the process, for example by linking SAAS funding applications to any future guarantor scheme to ensure students do not have to submit multiple sets of documentation. One stakeholder called for institutional guarantorship schemes to be extended beyond graduation (ensuring that all the necessary requirements can be fulfilled) to support students into the next phase of their life.
Just over half students (n=13) had been homeless at some point, while a further five said they had been at risk of becoming homeless (n=5). Stakeholders and named contacts frequently highlighted the high rates of homelessness among estranged students. The threat of becoming homeless was a key contributor to students' poor mental health (see Section 3.5) and impacted significantly on academic attainment and drop out (see Section 3.4).
Often students had become homeless at the point at which they became estranged. In several cases, students said they were made homeless while still at school. Some students described how both the mental and physical impacts of homelessness had a knock-on effect on their studies.
"I moved and I got screwed over, so I became homeless, which wasn't so great. I had to stop studying actually… two months after the start of the course, I stopped because I was homeless. I couldn't afford food. I couldn't find accommodation or a job. All my savings, I had used. That was very difficult to do on my own and I didn't start studying again until the next year." (Estranged student)
Experiences of homelessness varied. Some spent weeks (or in some cases years) couch-surfing, often moving between friend's houses, or friend's parents' houses. Students spoke of how this impacted on their personal relationships and feelings of housing insecurity. Those who were able to stay with friends when they needed somewhere temporary to live expressed discomfort with taking advantage of these relationships.
"I lived in a lot of places from September to that summer, and yes, it kind of affected me a lot because I was only 16/17 at the time, and that insecurity of not knowing where you're going to go next was… It was quite stressful because I just slept on people's couches or if they had a spare room or something, but of course you can't overstay your welcome." (Estranged student)
Among those who had not experienced homelessness, the threat of it caused high levels of anxiety. These students could become reliant on certain relationships with partners, friends or relatives to keep them from becoming homeless, making them feel more vulnerable.
"When my boyfriend and I split up and we were living together, I just felt like this sudden immediate like hopelessness, like I all of a sudden had to get my life together and I didn't know where I was going. […] I was really worried that I wasn't going to find somewhere." (Estranged student)
In several cases, students had no option but to enter emergency homeless accommodation in hostels and shelters, often without any of their belongings if they had fled an abusive situation at home. Students spoke of how unsafe they felt in these shelters and how difficult it was to continue with their studies while living there.
"I got a place in a youth hostel, which I was there for about a month until there was issues in the hostel, they had to move me for my safety, and then I was at another hostel for about eight months, I think, before I moved in with my partner." (Estranged student)
As mentioned in the previous section (3.2.4), several students accrued debt whilst staying in homeless accommodation which exacerbated feelings of financial insecurity. One student accrued debts of thousands of pounds after being charged £300 per week for emergency accommodation. Named contacts noted some students were accessing discretionary funds to repay these debts. Students spoke of the difficulties of trying to be rehoused through the council, and the length of time this took.
"I was homeless for about like 2 years, different addresses, staying there for 2 months and 1 month there, 2 weeks there. It took a long time for the council to house me and it's just…you just feel like you're lost in the system." (Estranged student)
Several interviewees noted that being a full-time student acted as a barrier to accessing accommodation. Students reported being denied housing support from the council due to them being in full-time education, with the expectation they would receive help through their institution.
"I was homeless for a year and a half I think, almost a year and a half, staying with my friend for a whole year and then I didn't really get much support at all. I would say even like housing wise I never got support, money wise I never got support and that's all due to me being a full-time student…So the council they wouldn't help me with money or housing etcetera because I was a full-time student." (Estranged student)
Yet students who had tried to access housing support through their institution also complained of a lack of support. While they could be offered university owned accommodation, there was still an expectation they would have to pay for this. Stakeholders and named contacts noted how estranged students are prone to falling through the cracks in the system.
"We have emergency accommodation…but if we house the young person in emergency accommodation, then they fall down the points system in the local authority for their own social house, which is a really crazy situation where, if we try to support the young person in the long term, it'll be to their detriment because they won't have a stable home…Then the young person is just stuck, essentially, in accommodation where they may be being charged student accommodation at a discounted rate, or they may not have their own permanent home. There's just no stability. There's no permanency in it. The whole system really, I think there are huge cracks that estranged people, particularly young people, fall through." (University named contact)
3.3.6 Improving accommodation support for estranged students
Interviewees identified several main areas of improvement to accommodation support. Students and named contacts felt that SAAS funding should be increased to cover rent whilst leaving sufficient funds for living costs. They also suggested that the provision of year-round accommodation could be extended across institutions, and anxiety around this could be reduced through ensuring students did not have to move between rooms in institutions where 365-days-a year guarantees already exist.
A key area of improvement related to ways to improve institutional guarantorship schemes, which included:
- Creating a nationally standardised scheme so that support is uniform across institutions
- Increasing the promotion and resourcing of schemes so that they are able to meet demands
- Extending support to better cover students renting in the private sector
- Simplifying administrative processes with the possibility to link guarantorship to a SAAS funding award; and
- Extending guarantorship support beyond graduation so that students retain housing stability once they are no longer studying.
Other suggested improvements included:
- Offering estranged students more information regarding their housing options when they join the institution
- Providing funds to assist with travel costs as estranged students were often living further away from their institution due to the housing being cheaper; and
- Supporting students to secure housing post-graduation.
3.4. Impact of estrangement on educational transitions, attainment and progression
Our research indicated that estranged students from both further and higher education institutions (FE and HE) were impacted by their estrangement at every key milestone in the student journey. This section explores how estrangement impacted on academic transitions (from secondary school, to college and university, and after graduation), attainment and drop out.
3.4.1 Attainment during school
For many students, estrangement occurred while they were at secondary school which impacted on their education in a number of ways. There were students who had left school early with 'minimum qualifications' as a result of having to leave the family home and find somewhere to live. Others stayed on for S5 and S6 to complete Highers and Advanced Highers but spoke about being unable to concentrate on their studies due to worrying about what was going on at home. This negatively affected their grades and impacted on students' ability to access their preferred course or institution. Some students had missed their conditional offers for university when their grades dropped around the time of their estrangement.
"I think it affected my grades massively because I was just upset and gutted, and so I couldn't really focus on my exams. I went from being predicted four As and a B Advanced Higher, to getting an A, a B, and two fails. It completely devastated me." (Estranged student)
However, there were also students who used schoolwork as a distraction from their home life and described school as a "sanctuary" or "safe space" from abusive situations at home. Students said they were motivated to do well at school with the aim of attending university or college as a way to escape their home situation, while others felt continued study was the only option open to them. Some spoke about achieving top grades in their Highers, while there were others who aimed to achieve just enough to get into university or college.
"I used it as a focus to kind of forget everything else, if that makes sense, so I really did make a lot of effort for my exams. I had to." (Estranged student)
3.4.2 Transitions to further or higher education
The estranged students who participated in the research had a range of educational trajectories. Many went from S6 directly into a degree, while others had gone on to FE from school, working their way up from National Qualifications to HNC/Ds and then on to degrees. Some students in their 20s and 30s had returned to education after years spent working or raising families and worked their way up.
For those who entered university directly from S6, it was common for estrangement to have occurred in the summer between the end of school and university, after students had received their university offers. Among those who enrolled in FE courses after leaving school or returned to college later in life, this was often to make up for qualifications that they had not achieved at school as a result of dropping out due to estrangement.
"I left school with minimum qualifications, so I knew that I had to go back into college to get those qualifications to go on to university." (Estranged student)
"I didn't get the right grade in high school, so I done maths again in college and then I ended up doing another year in college again doing the HNC and then from there I got into [degree course]." (Estranged student)
Many college students had tried several courses before deciding on a subject that they liked, which one estranged student explained was a result of the need to find out who they were. Others explained they had been forced by parents to study subjects that they had not wished to and decided to change course after their estrangement. For one student, changing to a course their parents did not approve of had been a factor in their estrangement.
Some students opted for an alternative route through their qualification than their grades allowed for. There were examples of students with an HNC/D choosing to enter first year of a degree at university rather than articulate into the second or third year. Students said they wished to have a less stressful educational experience while dealing with the ramifications of estrangement, such as a financial worry and housing issues. However, the financial implications of accruing an additional years' student debt were not raised.
"[…] they were like, 'Oh, you can do direct entry into second year,' but because of my situation, I was like, 'I'm just going to have an easy year and not go head first into the second year.'" (Estranged student)
Experiences of estrangement impacted on students in different ways. There were students who said they coped well with the transition from school to college or university, reporting that their circumstances had prepared them for the independence that was required in further or higher education. For those who coped less well, there was a prevalent theme of isolation and feelings of not fitting in due to lack of finances and being the only one they knew without family support.
"I've always been independent. I've never really been able to rely on my family, so I don't think it hit me…the transition itself wasn't as difficult." (Estranged student)
"The transition period was definitely quite difficult because I definitely started comparing myself to everyone around me. They were buying fancy alcohol and going to clubs and doing all this fun stuff, going to dinner together, […]. I didn't even have bedding because I couldn't afford it, so I just slept with my jacket." (Estranged student)
3.4.3 Attainment at university or college
It was common for estranged students to express that they had struggled to cope with the academic workload. In the absence of the support of parents/legal guardians/carers, the overbearing worry of money and threat of homelessness impacted FE and HE students' ability to study for their course. Estranged students that had part-time jobs to supplement their income, spoke about the stress of trying to complete their assignments while working to pay for their rent and other essentials.
For FE students, a concern was missing college to take on extra hours at work which impacted their bursaries. HE estranged students that had accessed the maximum financial support they could (SAAS loan, ISB and discretionary funding) still felt the impacts of financial worry on their academic work.
"I still need to go and work those 16 hours, and every time I do, I think those are 16 hours that could be spent studying, so it does have an impact, having a job, but I just - there's nothing more I can do. I can't afford to quit my job." (Estranged student)
"I used to be able to get merits for every single test or exam that I did. Now, I'm lucky if I even pass it because I'm just so stressed out. I'm working so much that I feel like I don't have enough time to put into my studies, but because I don't have much financial help and I've got so much to pay for, I don't have any choice but to work." (Estranged student)
Alongside financial stress, estranged students experienced mental health struggles that had developed as a result of their family background and treatment at home. Anxiety and depression were common amongst these students and often affected their focus and ability to study. There were students who were involved in ongoing criminal investigations as a result of their treatment at home, the stress of which further impacted on students ability to focus on their studies.
"That might be a good thing in the sense that I'm not reliant on my family, but it affected me very much so with my mental health and I find it quite difficult to get myself to study at times. It's just a sort of existentialist kind of thing. What's the point?" (Estranged student)
"It had a huge impact on university and on my studies because I was obviously going through quite a lot of, like I said, threatening behaviour towards me. So, I couldn't exactly sit in peace, I was always on edge […] I had no concentration… due to everything that was going on at the time." (Estranged student)
Some estranged students interviewed were very high achievers, both at school and in FE/HE. This was often despite dealing with extreme adverse circumstances and a lack of support from academic staff who did not always understand the difficulties faced by estranged students (e.g. threatening expulsion to non-attenders). Stakeholders, named contacts and students highlighted the self-sufficiency and motivation estranged students acquired as a result of always having to rely on themselves. This was seen as impacting on attainment and progression from school to FE/HE.
3.4.4 Drop out and interruptions to study
Despite some students displaying behaviours of self-sufficiency and high attainment, it was common for students to struggle to cope academically with the stress of managing without family support. Estranged students said they had dropped out of their courses or considered doing so, taken temporary breaks in study and repeated courses they had failed.
Those who had dropped out or taken a break did so for a variety of reasons, including homelessness, the stress of dealing with estranged parents/legal guardians/carers, financial worry, problems with funding, physical or mental health, childcare, and poor academic attainment. Often participants spoke about the overwhelming struggle of having to deal with multiple points of pressure in their lives in the absence of a family support network and how completing assignments in this situation was the last thing on their mind.
"Trying to deal with college, trying to deal with getting my stuff from [parent's] place, obviously, trying to also deal with housing, mental health in general, that kind of thing, it all got very hard for me and then I ended up dropping out. I ended up missing quite a lot of college, because I've had days where I'd rather stay at home and do nothing than go into college when I just wanted to cry." (Estranged student)
Amongst the students interviewed, there were cases of FE students being threatened with expulsion for non-attendance. Reasons for students not attending college included flare-ups of long-term health conditions, mental health challenges related to estrangement, surgery and moving accommodation. Some students reported not being believed by college staff when they tried to explain their non-attendance.
"They were constantly questioning why I'm not attending, like I'd been off for like one day when I had to move house, they took me into an office and they were like yeah, 'if you're off again, we're kicking you out of this course', you know?" (Estranged student)
There were college stakeholders who perceived taking a break from college as beneficial for students who had too much going on to focus on their studies. One stakeholder described this as a 'positive pause'. Estranged students did not specify whether or not they perceived a break in the same way.
"Sometimes, the best thing that we can do is to support a student to make a positive pause because there's too much going on and now is not the right time to be at college. But it's how you facilitate that and how you manage that when quite often, our students who feel overwhelmed, the easy thing is just to walk out the door." (College named contact)
3.4.5 Overcoming drop out
Despite the difficulties they faced, estranged students often persevered with their studies or returned to study after taking a temporary break. Having a surrogate support system in the absence of parental support was influential in students choosing to stay on. This support system came in different forms, such as friends, institutional support staff, teaching staff, counsellors and partners.
"I was thinking of just leaving because I was like I can't deal with it. No course was worth me literally losing my life over. […] but after talking to my student adviser and my lecturers I managed to get through it." (Estranged student)
"I've considered it multiple times, dropping out, but like I said earlier on: my classmates weren't ever having it and they dragged me [back] kicking and screaming." (Estranged student)
It was also common for estranged students to suggest that university or college was their only option and that they did not have any choice but to continue despite the difficulties. For these students, dropping out could result in them losing their income and, for some degree students, accommodation. Without a family home to return to, they would have been at risk of homelessness.
"I would have nothing else. I don't have anything else but university. I don't have any other accommodation but student accommodation. If I didn't do this, I wouldn't have anything, so I kind of have to stick with it." (Estranged student)
"If college doesn't work out for them, they always have that like fall back, they can just stay with their parents again. They can have time to be teenagers until they work out what they want to do. I didn't have that option." (Estranged student)
Another common motivator for persevering with their studies was the desire to 'prove everyone wrong' and to achieve what they considered as success in life. Sometimes this was motivated by a need to provide a better life for their children than the one they had experienced.
"Just trying to get qualifications under my belt and trying to prove everyone wrong because all my life, I have been called a failure, that I was wasting my own time, that sort of thing. So, I want to prove everyone wrong and try and get somewhere in life, I guess." (Estranged student)
3.4.6 Thoughts and fears about graduation
Graduation was not a key focus of the research. However, some students, stakeholders and named contacts raised concerns about how estranged students may be further disadvantaged at the point of graduation.
Worry about the future and life after graduation was a prevalent theme for estranged students, some of whom expressed pain at their parent(s)/guardian(s) missing out on 'big life events' such as graduations. This suggested that estranged students were not only missing out on the security of housing and finances after graduation but also emotional support as well.
"Not having those figures to be there for you when you're going through your life achievements it is kind of a bit [ ____ ], especially if you know people whose parents are super proud of them and will post pictures of them graduating and stuff and being really supportive about those things." (Estranged student)
Alongside concerns about finding a graduate job, estranged students worried about where they were going to live and how they were going to afford necessities without student accommodation or finance, and without a family 'safety net' to rely on.
"I get quite anxious thinking about it. It's like, what then? Would I go into a full-time job to be able to pay for a flat? Would I be able to get a flat quick enough for the end before my term and my accommodation runs out? Would I actually get a job at the end of my degree? Stuff like that. It makes me quite anxious thinking about it." (Estranged student)
These concerns were shared by university named contacts who had seen the impact that being estranged had on these students. They explained that after graduation, estranged students can get stuck in a cycle of accepting low-paid jobs in order to afford rent despite having top qualifications. This resulted in a perpetuation of living in poverty, risking homelessness and poor health.
"Often our estranged students are the ones in low-paid jobs, unskilled jobs that they have to continue as soon as they graduate because they need the money. Then they're stuck in a lower-paid job and they've got this great qualification, but they can't break the cycle. So, they're working too many hours, their health, their mental health gets affected. Much higher risk of homelessness, trying to find a deposit, guarantee schemes." (University named contact)
Some named contacts had provided additional support to estranged students to ease the exit from full-time education into employment. This included emergency accommodation in the summer after graduation or the provision of discretionary bridging loans to assist them. Some college and university named contacts, and students, called for additional support to help them upon leaving university, particularly in relation to finances and accommodation.
"They're about to leave university and it's like a precipice. Students come back to me like, 'Can I do another degree? Can I do a postgrad degree?' Students would do a postgrad degree and then they're like, 'Can I do another postgrad degree?', and I'm like, oh. What you realise is that they're facing an absolute precipice. I know what I did when I finished uni: I moved back in with mum and dad, looked for work, etc., and had that safety net. It's a real cliff edge coming out of where all the support is within an institution, coming out of that." (University named contact)
3.5. Impact of estrangement on health and wellbeing
Estrangement can impact students' health and wellbeing in a number of ways. This section includes findings on the various ways in which estrangement has affected students' health and wellbeing both negatively and positively.
3.5.1. Negative health and wellbeing impacts
As described in section 3.1, there were students who were estranged because their relationship with parents/legal guardians/carers was strained, abusive, violent or destructive. The trauma experienced as a result of these relationships can be longlasting and can impact negatively on an individuals mental health, as was the case among some of the older interviewees who were in their 30s. Students reported experiencing depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts as a result of the trauma experienced while living with their family. For some, the full impact of this trauma was only felt once they had left the family home and it affected both students' mental and physical health.
"Mentally it has affected me because I do suffer from depression and anxiety which I didn't before…now I'm out of that trauma, it hits you more if that makes sense…now you're out of it, you kind of think about it more and it gets to you more. So yeah, depression is a big one and anxiety." (Estranged student)
In addition to the mental health impacts of trauma, estrangement also made students feel isolated and alone. While students were relieved to have escaped their situation at home, they still felt a sense of loss of no longer having a family to provide them with emotional support. Isolation and loneliness was exacerbated for students where estrangement from parents/guardians had resulted in isolation from other family members, such as siblings still living at home. Students felt alone in negotiating life without the "safety net" of a family to fall back on in times of difficultly which placed further strain on their mental health.
"It just felt like really I was on my own with everything that I do. That feeling, it weighs down on you and it builds stress that you just can't let out anywhere…You know everything you do depends on you, and only yourself. It's, yes, it's basically like that, like walking a tightrope, but knowing that there's no safety nets underneath if you fall. It's kind of scary actually." (Estranged student)
"It's been difficult to accept myself that I have no one to say like…no one to share anything, Mother's Day or Father's Day and I have no one to call a brother or sister. It's like a blank space, I feel like a lot has been lost." (Estranged student)
It was not just the lack of emotional support from family that affected estranged students mental health. Students were also impacted by not having parents/guardians around to teach them practical life skills to help them learn to live independently. Without family support, there were estranged students who found it harder to do practical tasks such as setting up bills or applying for funding. This put more strain on individuals which negatively impacted on their mental health. There were some students who received practical support from their college or university but this was not the case for all.
Living without the support of family and having to fend for themselves, impacted on estranged students ability to form relationships. There were students who had become used to only relying on themselves that said they found it hard to open up and trust others. Some also found it difficult to connect with and relate to other students because their experience of family was so different. Students did not always want to disclose their estrangement. This led to them avoiding situations where family may be mentioned, or lying about their family relationships, thus impacting on their mental health and adding to feelings of loneliness.
"I think the biggest problem was that I'd never felt mental health problems so heavily before, so because I didn't have anyone, I was alone and nobody really understood what I was going through because I wasn't telling them what was going on. Still, a lot of people in my life don't even know that I'm estranged. I'm too embarrassed to tell them I don't speak to my parents. I feel like I'm living up to this lie and telling them, 'Yes, my mum and dad are fine. We did this', but we didn't really do anything, but I just don't want to look like I've changed so much, especially with my high school friends. I feel like I don't want, I don't know, I don't want to look like I'm struggling, so I cover it all." (Estranged student)
"I think the estrangement, overall, I think it's harder to connect with people who don't share the same experience. People tend to rely on their families quite a lot, for good reason. When you don't have that, it's hard to relate to that, and it feels a bit weird." (Estranged student)
Overall, there were many ways in which estrangement made life challenging for students and the cumulative negative affect this had on their mental health. Students, named contacts and stakeholders all agreed that estrangement impacted on all aspects of their life and coping with multiple stresses and anxieties eroded their resilience and overall mental health.
"Just the situation that estranged students are in on many levels very, very often does affect their mental health and exacerbates their mental health. If you don't know where your rent is coming from, you don't know how you're going to pay for food, you know. That affects their mental health, as well as the very often very traumatic circumstances that they have left behind. They will encounter situations that will trigger those again and again over the course of their education journey. Very often they start whichever course that they're starting, but they have no medical diagnosis of say depression or stress or anxiety. How can they then access the support that is available to them? They haven't got that medical testament that actually says that they can officially access that, so there's all of that." (Stakeholder)
3.5.2. Positive impacts of estrangement
While estrangement had a number of negative impacts on students, there were students and stakeholders who believed there were some positive aspects that came from being estranged. There were students who felt estrangement was positive because it meant they had escaped a toxic or abusive environment. While students continued to live with the mental impact of having lived in that environment, they felt that was preferable than if they had not left. There were also examples of students' feeling stronger and more resilient as a result of what they have lived through and could see their mental health improving as a result of leaving traumatic environments.
"The stress of it [estrangement] is definitely high, but then again, in a sense, it's also like being estranged makes it easier because of how my family was in general…I would say estrangement, in some cases, and in some ways, can be good for a person. If you have a really poor family, as in like how you're treated and how things go in that household, then being away from that is a massive relief." (Estranged student)
"Definitely makes me stronger person, which is another reason why I can be proud of myself, that I know that I can actually overcome nearly any difficulty in my life. After what I've been through, I can say that." (Estranged student)
With estrangement, students also experienced a sense of freedom, not only from challenging relationships, but a freedom to be themselves and make choices without judgement or criticism. This was the case for students who became estranged because their parents/guardians did not approve of their sexual preferences, gender identity, religious beliefs or lifestyle. This was also true for students who felt controlled while living with their parents/guardians. For some, this resulted in greater self-acceptance and improvements to their self-esteem.
"Positive, I feel so much more sane…I haven't got anybody in my life putting me down for the way I look or what I do with my life or anything like that. I feel like I'm less judged. I feel like I can do what I want, and I feel like making decisions is easier now because I don't feel like there are going to be consequences or if there are, I'm not going to be harshly judged for them. I'm still struggling with my self-image and stuff because of the trauma but I think getting away from them I feel a lot better about myself and I feel much more comfortable in my own skin which is nice." (Estranged student)
Becoming more independent was another positive aspect of estrangement. Independence was forced on some before they felt ready for it and learning to be independent was challenging. However, on reflection, students felt it was positive that they had learned to look after themselves. There were students who had developed independent living skills while living at home because they had caring responsibilities. Already possessing these skills meant the transition to living independently of their family was slightly easier.
"There's not a lot of positives to being estranged to be honest, apart from maybe learning to have more autonomy. Learning to become more self-supporting and stuff. You kind of get forced to do stuff that maybe your peers will be, say, too lazy to do because they are like, 'I'm not going to fill in this form because my dad was going to do it for me.' I can't do that, so I have to do it myself." (Estranged student)
Finally, there were students for whom estrangement was transformative. Estranged students felt that what they had been through, both before and after estrangement had changed them in a number of positive ways. They felt the experience had taught them a lot about themselves and the strength and maturity they had gained. They also said they had become more empathetic and generally a better person as a result of their estrangement and the hardship they experienced.
"I think I've changed as a person. I've become so much more understanding and, honestly, I feel like I've become a nicer person. I used to be quite nasty and stuck in that high school mindset, I guess, of being really judgmental of people and stuff. Now that I've been put in that situation, I'm actually really grateful to be put in this, although that is stressful. I would say, nowadays, I am a lot happier, I guess. The stress will always be there, but I know that dwelling on it doesn't do anything to help it." (Estranged student)
"It's made me realise a lot about…what happiness is and like what truly being happy is and having good connections and it's made me learn like what to look for, for good friendships and relationships and like the challenges that I've overcome have made me a lot stronger as a person. I've had to do a lot of work to get myself to where I am now, and I can happily look back and be like I did that. I've learnt a lot about myself and my mental health and yeah, my attachment style and it's definitely made me a lot more grateful for things and made me mature. So those are some of the positive sides to it, I guess." (Estranged student)
3.5.3. Health and wellbeing support
Estranged students' experiences of accessing support for their mental health and wellbeing were varied. There were those who chose not to access support for their mental health because they did not want to tell people about their estrangement and preferred to deal with things on their own. There were also those who did not know that mental health and wellbeing support was available via colleges and universities. Students generally found out about the support available when they disclosed their estrangement to someone in the college or university. Disclosures often arose because the mental health of students was impacting their ability to engage sufficiently in their studies or had reached crisis point.
For those who tried to access support, not all were successful. There were estranged students who described being on a waiting list for support but did not receive support.
Those who had accessed support reported differing experiences. There were students who were very positive about the mental health support they received from their college or university and who were supported in a range of ways, including: counselling, mental health check-ins with wellbeing advisors, and peer support groups.
"The college was very, very supportive and all the four years I've been using the counselling, the school services, which was very, very helpful. Actually, helped me to finally be okay with myself, so yes. Also, helped me with the stress, which is also, it's associated with the studies." (Estranged student)
"Once I found out about all this and got myself on the radar for the wellbeing support at the university, they're so on the ball with all of this. They know that not having that support, not having that, you know, just those people to rely on that you're supposed to have to rely on, is going to have an impact on your mental health and your wellbeing. I think that's why they're so good at, you know, 'We have these drop-ins. You know where to find us if you need a chat. How are you doing?' Doing these check-ins and things, really just giving you as many opportunities to open up if you need that. It has such an impact." (Estranged student)
However, while students were appreciative of the support on offer from colleges and universities, they did not always find that the support helped. There were students who felt their mental health was negatively affected by financial or accommodation stress or from loneliness. Therefore, support such as counselling, did not do anything to resolve the cause of their distress.
"I did receive mental health help from the university when I was starting to develop some scary symptoms, but that was because of everything building up…the university gave me six weeks of telephone counselling…All the support I would receive, it was almost like it didn't actually do anything because it didn't get rid of that underlying cause of all the troubles that I knew were going on." (Estranged student)
Some students, stakeholders and named contacts also highlighted the limitations of institutional counselling services, both in terms of the number of sessions offered and the type of support provided. They noted that these tend to focus more on anxiety relating to exams rather than complex trauma associated with experiences of estrangement. This had led some students to fund their own therapy privately.
"University therapy that is given out is not helpful at all. They offer six sessions, and it is free, but it's not for mental health, it's for if you're struggling with uni and if you're having trouble managing workload and stuff. I remember going to them and saying I have this trauma, and them saying, 'We can't help you'. […] Going through the NHS, it was more like that where it was just talking therapies, self-help. Going to trauma therapies, like I said, a lot of them are full. A lot of them, they have a lot of long-term patients, so there's not many openings. You kind of have to turn to private therapies because no one else will take you on." (Estranged student)
"We've had quite a few students who have been told by university services that their mental health needs are too complex for their counselling services who are really there to deal with exam anxiety and stress, not Post Traumatic Stress caused by childhood neglect that ends up retriggered as they're going through their studies." (Stakeholder)
Students also reported accessing support for their mental health from independent and/or specialist services outside of their college or university. These included: private and NHS counsellors/psychologists, third sector mental health support and specialised trauma support. Sometimes students were referred to these services by college or university staff to enable students to access more specialist services that were not available within colleges and universities. There were also support services provided to students by external organisations within the college or university setting which were commissioned by the institutions. Overall, mental health support provided by external agencies, independent of colleges and universities, was viewed positively by students.
"Yes so I had a suicide attempt and I managed to get a counsellor with [name of organisation] and he was fantastic, I'm no longer having sessions but I feel so much better than where I was before I started speaking to him." (Estranged student)
3.5.4. Improvements to institutional mental health support
Overall, estranged students felt the mental health support available to students needed to improve. Even those who had a positive experience of accessing support, both within institutions and externally, felt there was not enough support available, or available quicky, to sufficiently support everyone who needed it. There was also a sense that the support available within colleges and universities was not appropriate at addressing the issues that estranged students were facing. Students reported a need for more trauma informed counselling in particular. While there were instances of students accessing trauma informed support from services outwith colleges and universities, these services often had cost implications for students which made them less accessible.
There was a view that support provided to estranged students would benefit from college and university staff having a greater understanding of the causes of estrangement and the broad ways in which estrangement can affect students' mental health. There were students who felt that unless the causes of their stress or anxiety were understood and addressed then their mental health would not improve. Both teaching and support staff require a greater awareness and understanding of estrangement to ensure students are able to access support as soon as it is required. A greater understanding of estrangement and the impact it has on students would also enable colleges and universities to ensure that appropriate support is available, either within the institution or by referral to external services. Students specifically mentioned the need for staff who are trained to support students at risk of self-harm and suicide.
"I know it would be really hard, because a lot of funding for mental health is obviously not very good right now, but see if they could find a way to fund therapy for trauma specifically. I think that would really help. When I was looking myself to find therapies, I just kept coming to a dead end. I always wanted just to give up and thought that I was just going to feel this way forever and there wasn't going to be help for me. If it wasn't for my [partner's] mum helping me actually find them, I don't think I would have been motivated to do it." (Estranged student)
"The knock-on additional mental health support needs that this group of students might have as a result of that and the provision for that isn't always there as well. Also there seems to be with young people who are maybe coming to the University an understanding that they are estranged at the point of application. There isn't necessarily any local authority or social work support backing that young person up. They can be very alone in the world when they get to us. That puts a lot of pressure on for example their accommodation situation." (University named contact)
On the whole, the students who accessed support through their college or university only became aware that support was available once they disclosed their estrangement to someone at the college or university. Disclosure primarily came about because a student was failing to attend classes or submit assignments. Estranged students would like to see colleges and universities being more proactive in advertising what mental health support is available to estranged students so they can get support quicker and without having to seek it out. In addition to greater promotion of support, students would like information on the eligibility criteria for support to be clearer and easier for students to understand.
"I was diagnosed with an eating disorder last year and through that I had to make my professors and my tutors and stuff aware of my situation, and one of them did reach out and tell me that there are measures in place, people to talk to, therapy that you can access through university. Not just for this; for other things, and then be put in the direction of them, so that's how I was made aware of it…But I think it should be made aware to us from the straight get-go when we join university, because I think especially being estranged from your parents can manifest…The longer you leave issues, the worse it gets. I think if you're told about it straight off, the quicker you can start dealing with it." (Estranged student)
"I think having better support, having better guidelines out there for what qualifies or what doesn't qualify, and different options of money and stuff, so it's looking at more things an estranged student goes through and understand the things like help with mental health. If a student is estranged from family for say, abusive reasons like I am, they're going to have days where they physically do not want to leave the house because they're just that depressed or they're that anxious or they're scared of their lives that much." (Estranged student)
3.6. Institutional responses to estrangement
This section explores colleges and universities' responses to estrangement. It considers the institutional support available to students, the extent to which students were aware of that support, and students' experiences of accessing this. It concludes with a discussion of how institutional support for students could be improved.
3.6.1 Support available to estranged students
Stakeholders, named contacts and students identified a wide range of financial, accommodation and pastoral support currently on offer in Scottish colleges and universities. These included:
- Financial support: signposting to sources of financial support, such as notifying students of bursaries, scholarships, or other funding options they might be eligible for; discretionary and hardship funding; support with travel costs; assistance paying back debts such as rent arrears, utilities, and nursery payments; payment of rent; support to access the Childcare Allowance and support with childcare costs; financial support to help move into new accommodation; ringfenced funding for estranged students; bursaries and scholarships for estranged students, sometimes along with other disadvantaged groups; foodbank vouchers; topping up FE bursaries with discretionary funding; priority for discretionary funding
- Accommodation support: access to guarantorships; 365 days a year accommodation; discounted accommodation; assistance with accommodation costs from discretionary funds (e.g. paying rent)
- Pastoral support: access to counselling; provision of menstrual items; contact details for support workers; free gym membership; coffee vouchers; ability to self-certificate absences
- Academic support: extra days off where needed; additional time to complete assignments; help with personal statements while at college; laptops; provision of stationery or course materials; encouragement and verbal support
- Institution wide approaches: making estranged students part of corporate parenting policy; offering estranged students adjusted offers as part of contextual admissions.
The types and breadth of support provided varied considerably across institutions. Where institution-wide approaches had been adopted such as making estranged students part of an institution's corporate parenting policy, provision for estranged students appeared more comprehensive and consistent. Although some literature highlights the variations in discretionary funding offered by institutions, there is little which explores the range of support provided in colleges and universities to estranged students (Scottish Government, 2017).
3.6.2 Estranged students' awareness of support
Most of the universities, and some colleges, attended by the estranged students participating in this research had dedicated pages for estranged students on their websites. However, many students had little knowledge or awareness of the types of support they could access through their institution. The discretionary nature of institutional support, and the fact that institutions tended to assess students' needs on a case by case basis meant that unless students had had dealings with a named contact, they had little knowledge as to the breadth and levels of support on offer from their institution.
In particular, awareness of the existence of named contacts was low among estranged students from both colleges and universities. This included some vulnerable students (e.g. trans students, disabled students and student parents) who were experiencing significant hardship, and who would have benefitted from the support. Some estranged students found out about named contacts from their friends or from other estranged students. A student who had been couch surfing explained how they first heard:
"[The university wasn't aware] until I got to the end of second year, I think, because I had no idea that this was a thing you could bring to university. In my head I was like, oh, I had no concept of a university having a duty of care. […] So, it was literally my friend and she was ringing, like, 'I found this person's email. Email them and make an appointment and tell them about your situation. It can do so much.'" (Estranged student)
Two students (one in college and a second at university) had notified their institutions they were estranged before starting their course and were consequently able to access higher levels of support, particularly in terms of funding, but also accommodation. In one case, the student had been put in touch with their named contact by their headteacher. More commonly, students found out about named contacts further into their course. Several students said they felt reassured the support was there, but that they had not felt the need to approach them.
"Also having the uni aware, it didn't really make much of a difference in terms of lectures and I've never really needed to make an appeal for additional time for assessments or anything, but I know I'm on the radar. I have monthly meetings come through from the wellbeing support team like, 'We're having a drop-in on this day. How are you doing?' It's nice to know that there's no pressure to talk about it, but they're there if I need to." (Estranged student
3.6.3 Estranged students' experiences of accessing support
Among those who had been in touch with their institutional named contact, students were very positive about the support they received, noting how they felt less anxious as a result.
"I think knowing that [the university] had things in place for this, I think it eased anxieties about where I was going to sleep, if I was actually going to get an education. When it happens it's just kind of like, does it stop here? Is this it? What are you supposed to do? You never really have a plan, and I think what [named contact] does just kind of reassures you that it's not just going to stop there, there is other options." (Estranged student)
While students were often reluctant to declare themselves as estranged to their institution (see Section 3.1.3), if they did they were more likely to approach teaching staff such as lecturers or personal tutors than named contacts. This was partly because few were aware of named contacts, but also because students had existing relationships with their lecturers and felt they could trust them. Students' experiences of accessing support via this route was variable. There were students who said staff had not been able to assist them with their problems which often related to finance and housing. Others felt it had not made any difference or that staff had not understood the challenges faced by estranged students. By contrast, there were students who spoke of how helpful lecturers had been in terms of directing them to additional support, arranging for them to have extensions or making exceptions for their attendance records. Some credited their lecturers with keeping them in their studies after they considered dropping out.
"The college lecturers themselves have been absolutely amazing throughout the year. They've been very patient with me. They've been very patient in terms of not handing work in at the right time or not having the work handed in. They've been a great support to me." (Estranged student)
3.6.4 Improving institutional support for estranged students
The majority of universities, and a large proportion of colleges, in Scotland have named contacts, who provide tailored support to estranged students. This research found students were often unaware of support, especially named contacts, highlighting the need for increased promotion of services for estranged students. Having dedicated websites for estranged students is helpful. However, this only works if students have enough awareness of the term 'estrangement', know that colleges and universities offer additional support to estranged students, and are able to find and/or search for it on their institutions's website. Although some universities and colleges offered significant amounts of additional support to estranged students, students felt the onus was on them to self-declare in order to access support, with students often only aware of support after they had disclosed. Students called for institutions to be more proactive in how they reach out to those who are estranged, particularly at the start of courses. They suggested colleges and universities could mention estrangement in course introductions or send emails to all students encouraging them to come forward.
"I think, instead of you having to tell the university, I think the university should tell you - send out a mass email to everybody, including stuff for estranged students, students who go through other things as well, like care experienced students. I think they should just send it out to everyone because I think it's better to have it there, instead of you having to go and look for it. I think, making everybody aware, even if they're estranged or not, about it would be great, because I'm sure there are other people like me who are too shy to admit that they're estranged." (Estranged student)
Students liked the idea of drop in sessions, where they could meet with someone if they needed to. Several also suggested it would be useful to meet with other estranged students as a way to reduce their sense of isolation and talk with someone who could relate to their experiences. Few students had met other estranged students but those who had found it useful.
"It would actually be kind of nice like for there to be some sort of support group or like peer thing where I could meet other students that have been through similar things, because like I don't know anyone…that's what can be very isolating when you're like the only one." (Estranged student)
Students and named contacts from colleges and universities called for the need to improve awareness, amongst teaching staff, of the challenges estranged students face. There was also a view that college and university staff, including teaching staff, needed to do more to check in with their students to see how they are coping. Staff training was seen as critical to improving outcomes for estranged students.
"I think maybe just trying to understand everybody's personal circumstances, because I think that [teaching staff] forget a lot of the time that a lot of people are distanced from their parents or have really [ ____ ] relationships and they think that everybody is just going to university or college with this perfect life and the only thing they have to stress about is deadlines. No. Most students are living on their own, haven't got any support from anybody. They're working part-time to try to take overtime as much as they can to pay rent, to get food. I literally know friends who are living off of tins. It's not just deadlines that we're stressing about. It's everything else. So, imagine dealing with all of that and then you have somebody telling you, 'Oh by the way this isn't actually that good' and you know that you can't really say anything to them because then you just look like you're complaining." (Estranged student)
"It's about raising awareness amongst the wider institution and staff and the impact, because quite often… Our care experienced work is well established in the college, and quite often, I'll have lecturers saying, 'Oh, they're just a typical teenager', and you're like, 'Well yes, they are a typical teenager. However, there is also x, y and z going on, which means…' So, I think it's that raising awareness, because then we need to come together as an institution. It's not just about student support, providing support or counselling; it's about the college, similar to being a corporate parent. It's everybody. Everybody has a responsibility." (College named contact)
More widely, stakeholders and named contacts in this research called for the need to bring estranged students under the corporate parenting legislation, similar to those with care experience, as a means of ensuring students receive consistent support across institutions.
"Including estranged students in the groups, as one of the cohorts which requires statutory support, would basically massively ramp up college and university engagement with the issue, and massively improve the way they engage with the problem. They would have to, they would be legally obliged to do so, and they would be failing on their corporate parenting responsibilities if they did not." (Stakeholder)
"For me, I think any gaps would be the fact that it's not something that we are legally obliged to do. I don't think the gaps are our making. I think if they were given parity of esteem with our care experienced students, then I think that would change the landscape quite significantly. Wouldn't make it perfect, but it would give us more… It would give us more power, I suppose, to be able to make changes." (College named contact)
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