The charity StandAlone released a table this week showing the numbers of estranged students identified at UK Universities in 2017/18 (‘Estranged students data by HEP, academic year 2017/18’). The data is the latest to come from the Student Loans Company (SLC) through a Freedom of Information request. The source of the data explains the somewhat eccentric use of the terms ‘HE Providers’ for universities and ‘customers’ for students. Despite these grating terms, the figures show that there were 8,080 students in this position. This is a very small proportion of the total student numbers and there is an immediate sense that something is not quite right. There is a suspicion that this must be the tip of a much bigger iceberg. This suspicion might be down to several reasons including the definition of 'estranged' and what it means to different organisations.
Definitions constrain the numbers.
StandAlone supports “Estranged Students” who are “young people studying without the support and approval of a family network”. This captures a wide range of circumstances that might easily include students still in some contact with family; however dysfunctional or unsupportive it might be. The SLC is more prescriptive in its current definitions that encompasses a wider body of students defined as “independent”. This covers “being estranged from your parents if you have not had verbal or written contact with both of your biological, adoptive parents or your only living parent for a significant period of time and your estrangement is irreconcilable”. It also takes in those that “have supported yourself financially for a total of thirty six months prior to the start of your course, you can apply to be assessed as an independent student on the grounds of self-support”. Added are those who “have been in local authority care for at least three months” after their sixteenth birthday and “are irreconcilably estranged from your parents”. The SLC therefore does not take into account those who have left home at eighteen with no family support or ‘safety net’ upon which to fall back. The high numbers of students funding themselves through employment whilst studying suggest this is a much wider problem for many more students (see TEFS 19th July 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Overall pattern across the UK’). The numbers declaring estrangement was also likely to have been supressed in 2017/18 when the SLC was caught out doing invasive background checks on such students (see TEFS August 10th 2018 ‘The Student Loans Company chasing vulnerable students: A very worrying trend’).
Distribution of estranged students in the HE system.
The StandAlone/SLC data is ranked by institution, with those supporting greater numbers of estranged students at the top. What stands out immediately is that the post-92 universities are much higher in the ranking than the others.
The situation is more complex when looking at individual institutions and the numbers of estranged students. Figure 2 shows the percentage of estranged
Homelessness of young people is key a factor.
from their data, Figure 3 shows the number of those between the ages of 16 and 24 ‘owed a main homelessness duty’ by local authorities across England. It is apparent that the numbers have fallen over the years. Unfortunately, this excludes those leaving home voluntarily and might reflect a tightening of how the criteria are interpreted.
The tip of the iceberg.
It is apparent that the government’s way of categorising homelessness hides the true extent of the problems affecting many young people. By November 2018, a research report from CentrePoint and the Youth Homelessness databank, ‘Making homeless young people count: The scale of youth homelessness in the UK’ got closer to the truth. Through contacting all of the councils in the UK, they showed that 103,000 young people approached their council for help as homeless, or at risk of homelessness, in 2017/18. Of these, 84,000 were seeking help in England. But also, many failed to get help as a result of how they were viewed by the councils. This was reported by the Guardian at the time as ‘Half of young people facing homelessness denied help’.
This was against a backdrop of increasing homelessness highlighted by Shelter in the same month with ‘320,000 people in Britain are now homeless, as numbers keep rising’. The charity ‘Framework for your Future’ has shown that the ‘Types of homelessness’ include ‘non-statutory homelessness’, where voluntary organisations have stepped in, ‘sofa surfing’ with family and friends and the phenomenon of ‘hidden homelessness’ of people who do not show up on official figures because they have not asked for help or don’t know where to find it. The horrible truth is that many students making it to university probably fit into one or other of these categories. By simple deduction, it seems that the HE participation rate of young people from such backgrounds is well below 10%. They have an uphill struggle from the start.
What do the students think?
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.