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.
This research found that being estranged impacted on students' experiences of further education (FE) and higher education (HE) in Scotland in many ways, and these echoed those identified in the literature. Not having enough money to afford living essentials let alone the wider student experience, and concerns about accommodation were the most prominent. These were closely followed by experiences of trauma and its lasting effects on students' physical, mental health and wellbeing, and broader feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. Interviewees also highlighted how estrangement had adversely impacted on estranged students' experiences of school, college and university in terms of attainment, transitions and progression.
The challenges estranged students face whilst studying at college and university are numerous, and while a range of tailored support is available through both Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) and colleges and universities, currently it is only addressing some of their needs. This research illustrates how estranged students can 'fall through the cracks' of policies designed to assist them. Issues around understanding of eligibility, a lack of knowledge of what it means to be estranged, and low awareness of support (from both SAAS and institutions) led to students not being able to access the appropriate, existing support on offer to them. Support varied across FE and HE institutions, and tended to rely on students themselves self-declaring as estranged, and then proactively seeking out and accessing the support. If students are unaware of the support they are entitled to, or are unable or reluctant to declare that they are estranged to their institution, there is a danger that this vulnerable group will not access the necessary assistance.
The issues raised in this report, particularly in relation to financial hardship, accommodation insecurity, and poor mental health increasingly affect students from all backgrounds (Hall, 2022; NUS, 2022). However, these issues were amplified for estranged students, an already vulnerable group whose lives are likely to become even more challenging given the rising cost of living. Stakeholders, named contacts and students often compared the experiences of estranged students with those of care experienced students. Many felt the challenges faced by the two groups were comparable, though estranged students lack the support nets of additional funding and corporate parenting afforded to care experienced students in recent policy.
There are a number of ways in which governmental and institutional support can be improved. Increased funding whilst studying would improve the lives of estranged students and the financial difficulties they experience, though it may not fully resolve them, given the significant costs of accommodation and cost of living increases. There was a general consensus that a more proactive approach by colleges, universities and SAAS, to increase awareness of estrangement and the support available (financial, named contacts and mental health) for estranged students was needed. There was a call for estranged students to receive at least the same level of funding available to care-experienced students. Finally, the implementation of a national guarantorship system was recommended to assist estranged students access accommodation more easily.
This study highlights some remaining gaps in our knowledge. Areas where additional research would be beneficial include the following:
- The literature highlights the key point of estrangement is between the ages of 16 and 19, and our study supports this. However, no students under the age of 18 came forward to be interviewed. Further research is required with this age group to explore how they could be better supported and encouraged to self-declare earlier in their estrangement.
- The experiences of estranged students at the point of graduation was outwith the parameters of this research. Further research exploring how estranged students cope with the exit from full-time education and the support they require post-graduation would develop further the evidence available.
- It should be noted that the colleges and universities who participated in the focus groups for named contacts were chosen as they were identified from the review of institutions as having elements of good practice in how they supported estranged students. Further research with institutions where there was less evidence of responding to the needs of estranged students may be beneficial in future, to explore and understand why this might be the case.
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