Supporting estranged students to progress to competitive universities
An estranged student, according to the charity Stand Alone, is a young person who is, or will be, “studying without the support and approval of a family network.” The journey into higher education is not easy and estranged students are often faced with additional challenges without a support network in place. This blog aims to identify some of the main obstacles that estranged students may face when applying to university and give practical advice to teachers and advisors on how to best support these students as they make this transition.
For estranged students, the circumstances surrounding their estrangement can vary greatly from person to person, as can the support in place for these young people in higher education institutions across the country.1 One of the main barriers to accessing support is that estranged students don’t necessarily identify with that label, and therefore won’t go looking for support or won’t know the right search terms that can help them find it. It’s likely that they won’t have heard ‘estranged’ applied to themselves before they get to university. That’s why, at the University of Manchester, we give a list of circumstances which may sound more familiar to help estranged students understand if this is something that might apply to them. These are some of the circumstances that we identify as an estrangement for students under the age of 25:
> You have had no communicative relationship with your parents/guardians for at least 6 months and this situation is not likely to change
> You have been homeless or ‘sofa surfing’
> You have been in foster or local authority care but are not classed as a Care Leaver
> You are assessed as independent by Student Finance because you are estranged from your parents
> Both of your parents have passed away and you have no alternative family support in place.2
These examples are not exhaustive though and different universities may have different definitions and levels of support in place for students who identify as estranged. This blog sets out some of the barriers that may stop estranged students from progressing to competitive universities, and presents the ways in which teachers and advisors can help and support their students as they make the leap into higher education.
The UCAS application
In order to apply for university, all students must register with UCAS – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service – and submit their applications through the online system. Students submit their academic history as well as a personal statement, which will be read by admissions colleagues at the university to decide whether or not they are made an offer. This process can be daunting for estranged students for a number of reasons. They may not have the support from their family, and perhaps they have recently moved out or have been forced to take a break from their studies as a result of their estrangement. The plan to add an estranged student ‘tick box’ to the UCAS form is currently on pause, so students who have experienced difficulties such as these may want to mention this in their personal statement. UCAS have a personal statement guide that they developed with the help of Stand Alone and estranged students, which is designed to encourage applicants to write about the skills and competencies that they may have gained through their experiences. But, if an estranged student doesn’t feel comfortable disclosing the information in their personal statement, it can be useful for teachers to include this in the student’s reference to their chosen universities and colleges with consent. If there has been disruption at key points in the applicant’s education, admissions tutors will be able to use this information to view their achievements in the light of these circumstances both in the course of offer making and when it comes to confirmation and clearing. If you’re unsure as to whether one of your students would meet the criteria for support at a certain university – ask! Stand Alone has a list of named contacts at each institution, and often these details will be listed in university support pages too, so any questions from you or your students can be directed here.
Another difficulty that estranged students may encounter when applying for university is student finance. Usually based on household income, estranged students may struggle to find the appropriate evidence that Student Finance need. There is a separate process for estranged students to access student finance, and, although it’s slightly longer to complete than the usual process, it can really benefit students in accessing long term support at university too. In the case of the University of Manchester, being assessed as independent by Student Finance because of estrangement is appropriate evidence of the student’s situation and they would not need to provide additional information to benefit from the available support. Stand Alone has some excellent guidance and a useful checklist to support estranged students with their student finance applications and ensure they have everything they need to avoid common mistakes. To be assessed as ‘independent’ by Student Finance, applicants need to provide supporting statements from trusted independent parties. If a student has had contact with their local authority, a mental health professional or counsellor, a teacher or another independent party who could vouch for their estrangement then they can proactively ask for a letter or evidence to submit to Student Finance. If a student is struggling to complete their assessment, the Student Loans Company has a dedicated email to assist them, as well as the named contacts for estranged students at their chosen universities.
Physical and emotional support - moving to university
Moving to university poses more challenges for estranged students, who may not have access to the physical support needed to move across the country as well as a potential lack of emotional support as they make the transition into higher education and student life. In her blog post on her university experience, Chloe Fallon makes the point that although many institutions have additional offerings for estranged students in terms of university accommodation – for example a 52 week contract or a deposit waiver – the act of moving into halls was a real difficulty for her as she had to ask for her friends’ help. This left her feeling “anxious and embarrassed” and worried about what her new flatmates would think.3 The best thing that students can do if they’re having these kinds of problems is to get in touch with their chosen university – there may be additional support that the institution can offer even if it’s not listed on their website. In terms of emotional support, whether an applicant has self-identified, or their estrangement status has been confirmed by student finance, named contacts are available to assist estranged students at any point in the application process as well as throughout their time at university. At Manchester we can arrange pre-arrival meetings and campus visits (when allowed) and connect applicants with current estranged students who are happy to share their experiences. On arrival at Manchester, named contacts can act as a first point of contact to connect students with a range of support services as well as a network of other estranged students at the University, should they wish. With 41% of estranged students admitting that they had considered dropping out due to “money pressures, stress and mental health struggles,” it’s vital that the correct support is signposted to students from day one of their university journey.4
Applying for and moving away to university is a difficult time for all students, particularly for those without a family network around them. Support from teachers and advisors is essential in helping students navigate the UCAS and student finance application process, but if there is something that you or the student is unsure of then named university contacts are on hand to answer your queries and direct you to the appropriate support.
1. Stand Alone (2021) Available at https://www.standalone.org.uk/
2. The University of Manchester, Student Support (2019) Estranged students, Available at https://www.studentsupport.manchester.ac.uk/tailored-support/estrangedstudents/
3. The Student (2017) Experiencing University as an estranged student, Available at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/experiencing-university-estranged-student 29/11/2017, Chloe Fallon
4. Stand Alone (2015) Focus on access and retention. Risks for students who are estranged or disowned by their family, Available at https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Access-and-Retention.Final_.pdf
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