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.
The aim of this research was to provide an insight into the contexts and experiences of estranged students studying at college and university in Scotland, and to draw out learning from these findings to inform future policy and improve the provison of support for estranged students. This section will summarise the key findings from the research and discuss the implications of these findings.
4.1. Key findings
Reasons and contexts of estrangement
Reasons for estrangement were varied but echoed those identified in previous research including: difficult relationships with biological/step parents; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; clashes of values regarding sexuality, gender identity, cultural/ethnic background; students' responsibilities as young carers; parental addiction; and threats of forced marriage. It is important to note that intersectionality was evident in the student sample, with many reporting that they were, for example, in disabled, LGBTQI+, trans and ethnic minority categories. It was also evident that intersectionality amplified the experiences estranged students encountered, with those who were trans, disabled, from ethnic minorities and student parents particularly disadvantaged as a result of facing additional challenges.
Without parents/legal guardians to provide financial support, the fear of not having enough money to live off was acute and impacted on estranged students' already fragile mental health. Financial hardship was common among the students. We interviewed students who reported that they lived off overdrafts, regularly used food banks, went without food, or were unable to furnish their accommodation. This was especially the case for those who were assessed by Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) according to their parent's/legal guardian's/carer's income before they disclosed they were estranged (receiving lower/minimum loans and no bursary) and those who received no SAAS support (either as a result of being ineligible or because they were reluctant to take on debt). Some further education (FE) students noted their bursaries had been reduced, either because they went to work where they could earn more, or because they were struggling to cope with the impacts of being estranged and found it difficult to attend classes.
Income was often insufficient to cover essentials, let alone the wider 'student experience'. Even those who supplemented the maximum SAAS loan and bursary/FE bursary with discretionary funding, employment and scholarships, still struggled to meet their day to day living costs, largely due to the high cost of accommodation. Students expressed concerns about: student loan debt, the impact of the cost of living crisis and the need to support dependents, including estranged siblings and their own children. Paid work was considered a necessity by the majority of interviewees, with some working very long hours. During the summer, this was the only option of funding available to students. However, they noted the lack of job opportunities and the stress caused by having to find full-time work to support themselves over the summer period in the absence of any student support payments.
These findings of student financial hardship are not unique to estranged students. The recent NUS report on the cost of living for students and apprentices shows that financial hardship and its detrimental impact on mental health have increased among students from all backgrounds (NUS, 2022). However, the survey found that estranged students have been affected disproportionately by the cost of living crisis. Likewise, NUS Scotland's 'Broke' report (2022) found estranged student respondents were the most vulnerable of all the student groups they surveyed in Scotland, and were most adversely affected by financial hardship. Our findings support those of the 'Broke' report, illustrating how the estranged students participating in this research have struggled to sustain their studies on low incomes. Like the 'Broke' report, this research also found that students were not aware of the funds potentially available to them, or were reluctant to apply for them. More broadly, a lack of knowledge around the funding available to estranged students through SAAS and institutions meant students were missing out on funds they were entitled to.
Estranged students' current living situations were diverse. They lived in council housing, private rentals, with extended family members, with friends/family of friends, in halls and housing association properties. It was common for students to have experienced periods of homelessness or to have felt at risk of becoming homeless. Worries about this happening again in the future were pervasive. Some students had couch-surfed for long periods, relying on extended family, friends or family of friends with resultant feelings of insecurity and guilt. Others had lived in emergency and homeless accommodation; several of whom had accrued debt as a result of missed payments or rent arrears to the council.
Students felt their accommodation options were heavily limited by the high cost of student rents, particularly halls of residence and privately rented accommodation, where the maximum financial support available would often only cover rent, leaving nothing for the remaining essentials. Those in council accommodation said they would not be able to afford university or private rentals. This situation has worsened with recent inflation. The quality of accommodation was often an issue, with estranged students in this research, living in cheaper areas to afford rent where they felt unsafe or cramped, leading them to move frequently. Some had been forced to move accommodation during the summer break, which impacted negatively on their studies and mental health.
Estranged students faced challenges accessing guarantorship which meant they relied on family/friend's families to act as guarantors, had to make non-guarantor payments/large deposits, or were limited to cheaper options, such as staying with friends/relatives or council housing. While some universities offer rent guarantor schemes, awareness of these was mixed. Some students were completely unaware of them, whereas others had used them but highlighted their limitations. Stakeholders, named contacts and students supported the development of a national system of guarantorship to overcome these issues.
Academic attainment, transitions and progression
Interviewees highlighted the significant impact of estrangement on academic attainment, transitions and progression. Issues leading to estrangement often began during school which, for some, impacted on their attainment and consequently their access to FE and HE. While at college or university, the financial and emotional impacts of estrangement led to interruptions to their studies through drop out, repeated trimesters/years, course changes and the necessity for additional time to complete assignments. This led to additional years' learning which increased the amount of student loan debt accrued.
While drop out was frequently considered, some students were able to overcome challenges and stay in education. This was possible due to high levels of resilience, determination, self-motivation and the support of college and university staff (both lecturers and support staff), friends and partners. Overall, however, estranged students often lacked the support networks to help them achieve academically, offer emotional support, and navigate systems. It was also emphasised by the students that they were concerned about their future after graduation, in relation to their finances, accommodation and emotional health.
Amongst the students interviewed we found high levels of complex trauma resulting from their estrangement. Trauma negatively impacted on their mental health in a number of ways including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal ideation and behaviour. These feelings were exacerbated by the stress resulting from financial and accomodation worries. Estrangement also led to feelings of loneliness, isolation and stigma and resulted in low confidence and self-esteem, as well as dififculties in forming relationships with other students and staff. While the negative mental health impact of being estranged predominated, students also experienced some postive aspects of estrangement including freedom through emancipation, escaping abusive relationships and being able to be themselves.
Estranged students' experiences of accessing support for their mental health and wellbeing were varied. Some students were not aware of what mental health support was available from their institution. Others experienced long waiting lists and resorted to accessing support outwith their institution with potential financial implications. Some of those who accessed support via their institution found it helpful, while others felt it did not sufficiently meet their needs.
In addition to receiving support from colleges, universities and other formal services, students reported being supported by classmates, friends, partners and their partner's family to cope with the many impacts of estrangement. These individuals provided estranged students with emotional support to both deal with the impact estrangement had on them, as well as at times when traditionally a parent may be expected to provide support. There were estranged students who talked about their friends or partner being their chosen family. Without this support, estranged students said they would have felt lonely and unloved, been homeless or dropped out of education.
Institutional support for estranged students
There was evidence of estranged students receiving support through their institution to assist them with finances, accommodation, academic studies and mental health. Overall, those who received support found it helpful. However, estranged students experienced a number of barriers in accessing support.
- Students did not routinely disclose their estrangement to their institution at the start of their course. This was often due to a lack of awareness as to what estrangement is, but also a general reluctance to disclose until at times of crisis. Delays in self-declaration led to delays in estranged students receiving the support they were entitled to.
- Due to a lack of understanding of estrangement amongst students, and college and university teaching staff, students were not aware of the support available to them, and some staff were not aware of how to refer students for this support.
- Definitions of estrangement varied by institutions participating in this research, leading to inconsistent access to support across Scotland and some students missing out on support.
- Discretionary funding provided by colleges and universities varied considerably, leading some named contacts and stakeholders to report that it was a postcode lottery.
- Limited guarantor support was available through colleges and universities, and only applicable to institutional accommodation which students found expensive.
- Mental health support at colleges and universities was thought to be lacking and focused on educational attainment. There was a perceived lack of support for dealing with the issues estranged students face (e.g. trauma).
4.2. Improving support for estranged students
The students, stakeholders and named contacts who took part in this research proposed a number of ways in which estranged students could be more fully supported, to allow them to overcome the challenges and issues they face in FE and HE contexts in the future. These include:
Government, colleges and universities
- Declaration of estrangement: Support is needed for students to declare their estrangement (to both SAAS and their university/college) at the earliest opportunity to enable them to access the appropriate financial and mental health support. This will require clear and consistent definitions of estrangement to be adopted across government, FE and HE institutions.
- Raising awareness of estrangement: This is necessary in order that students understand they are estranged and entitled to the appropriate support, as well as to improve understanding among FE and HE staff. It will require more regular, proactive promotion of support available to estranged students through colleges, universities and SAAS to encourage earlier self-declaration, as often students found out about insititutional contacts and support from their peers months or years after their courses had started.
- There should be more proactive promotion of financial support available for estranged students, from SAAS and institutions. This, in tandem with increasing awareness of the term 'estrangement' would allow earlier self-identification and ensure estranged students are able to access the appropriate financial support.
- Improved mental health support: The consensus was that estranged students were not always aware or were not always able to access appropriate mental health support. As a result, there was a call for mental health support suitable for addressing the issues faced by students (for example, trauma, self-harm and/or suicidal ideation) to be more widely available and more actively promoted.
- A nationwide guarantorship system: There was wide support for the provision of a national guarantorship system for estranged students which would cover any type of accommodation or provision of more affordable student accommodation.
- Improved financial support for estranged students: The consensus was that funding should be provided throughout the year, including the summer months, with funding based on bursaries rather than loans, to overcome the often financially precarious lives led by estranged students. It was stated that this financial support had to reflect the increases in the cost of living (particularly to cover accommodation, travel and food costs). It was argued by stakeholders, named contacts and students in this research that estranged students should be entitled to at least the same levels of funding as care-experienced students. 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.
Colleges and universities
- Increase awareness of the support available to estranged students in colleges and universities, including named contacts, and a dedicated webpage for estranged students on the institution's website. This should be easy to find and navigate and include details of the kind of support available . It could also include links to rent guarantor systems, bursaries, scholarships and other relevant information so it is all in one place.
- Clear and coherent guidance should also be given which outlines the range of ways in which discretionary funding can, and is being used, by colleges and universities.
- There was a view that the support systems offered to estranged students in colleges and in universities in Scotland should be consistent.
- Earlier declaration of estrangement could be encouraged through greater awareness and understanding of estrangement among both school staff and school pupils.
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