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Tip of the iceberg: Estranged students at UK universities

The small number of estranged students at UK universities, who have lost links with their family and have no support safety net, might be seen as a sign that there is some glimmer of hope in the face of adversity. But those students must feel lonely and lost amongst the overwhelming numbers of their peers with family behind them. The reality is that they are standing at the tip of a very large iceberg of inequality and adversity. Beneath them are greater numbers of young individuals trapped in a system that leaves them hidden from view.

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.
However, please note that the data is presented to the nearest ten students and so a precise ranking is not possible. Nevertheless, at the bottom are listed institutions with less than ten estranged students. This effectively spares the blushes of those amongst them that have no such students. However, analysis (Figure 1) of the data in relation to the total numbers of students reveals that Post-92 institutions have taken in many more. These are followed by the Pre-92 universities and then the elite Russell Group universities taking up the rear. The reasons behind this are not clear and should be the focus of further investigation.

The situation is more complex when looking at individual institutions and the numbers of estranged students. Figure 2 shows the percentage of estranged 

students against their university position in the Times Higher power ranking from the last REF in 2014. The size of the bubbles indicates the relative total number of students at each university. This enables the position of the elite Russell Group universities to clearly stand out. Their considerable REF-based funding means that their priorities might be different to the others. What also stands out is the very low percentage of students estranged (less than 1%) at all institutions. The total number does not exceed 200 at any one university. There is therefore a strong suspicion that this is the tip of a very big iceberg.

Homelessness of young people is key a factor.

It follows that there must be many more students, or would be students, that have no family support. Those away from home with no support may find it impossible to meet the SLC criteria for ‘estranged’ or ‘independent’. Yet they are effectively in the same position. For those who failed to keep up with the educational demands after sixteen, the situation could translate into catastrophic homelessness. An excellent House of Commons report ‘Statutory Homelessness in England’ was also released this week and leaves politicians with little excuse for not knowing the extent of the problem. Yet, in researching for this article it became clear that the conclusion of the CenterPoint charity in ‘Making homeless young people count: The scale of youth homelessness in the UK’ was indeed correct, “There is no official definition or measurement of the scale of youth homelessness in the UK”. The Commons report naturally leans heavily on official data from the government's ‘Homelessness Statistics’. Taken
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 law changed in 2017 with the intention of reducing homelessness through prevention measures. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 defines conditions for ‘prevention’ of homelessness and ‘relief’ of homelessness that started after April 2018. By March 2018 there were 14,970 sixteen to twenty-four year olds in England who were ‘owed a prevention or relief duty’ by councils. Shelter provides a good overview of the legal situation for young people seeking help from their local council. Simply put, “The council could decide you're not homeless if family or friends agree to let you stay”. The result must therefore mean that there are many young people trapped in very difficult situations and are unable to break free. This is especially the case for those trying to become university students or with no job. In April 2018, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education published updated joint guidance on the ‘Prevention of homelessness and provision of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation’. It remains to be seen if this is effective in practice where resources are very limited and reality trumps aspiration.


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?


The results of a survey of 1,078 students (‘At what cost? Students’ views on Augar, funding and the cost of living’) by the Higher Education Policy Institute and YouthSight emerged this week. The survey, done this August,  provided a snapshot of what students are currently thinking about their support. It is perhaps not surprising that the majority of students (79%) are concerned about the high level of interest on loans. Setting aside the level of fees, it seems that there is strong support for bringing back maintenance grants as recommended in the Augar Report earlier this year. An overwhelming number (85%) want a mixture of grants and loans, or grants only, to be in place. This is not surprising when it appears that only 52% say that their parents contribute to their living costs. Even then, only 50% get over £1,000 per year and 21% less than £500. The pressure on their funds, and the resulting need for commuting and part-time jobs, becomes greater for those with such little support behind them (see TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’). 


It is also clear that most are not considered ‘independent’ by the system even if this is the case in practice. The survey punctures the comfortable ‘middle-class’ notion of university exemplified by former government minister David Willets in his book ‘A University Education’. He starts with “I love Universities. You just have to look at the posters stuck to the walls and notice boards. They add up to a picture of the good life – invitations to join sports teams, orchestras, social projects , new drama productions…………”. Looking further than a few posters on the walls, that may have been his experience but obviously not the experience of many others in a divided and unequal system. The survey covered students already achieving their goal of university. It would be interesting to see what the casualties of the system think as they struggle to succeed or who give up on the idea and aspiration of  university as "a picture of the good life".

The last word.

Goes to those who are estranged. A paper based on the experiences of those involved with StandAlone emerged this week. It considered the views and recommendations of estranged people in terms of counselling. The authors reported a research study that investigated ‘The Counseling Experiences of Individuals Who Are Estranged From a Family Member’. This was timely as it coincided with ‘World Mental Health Day’ yesterday. The survey-based research shows that counseling support for estranged people in general is variable. The combination of those affected feeling stigmatised, and a perception of families as the norm, makes for a poor outcome in some cases. Professionals who understand estrangement, listen and let the estranged person reach their own conclusions, were better appreciated. But other professionals seemed to be infected by their own middle-class expectations as  we see below. The last word goes to one individual surveyed;

“I had talked about my mum for about 20 minutes and the [therapist/counselor] went: “Talk to your mum, she cares about you. She’s Your Mum.” In this very serious tone like he was imparting a really key truth of the universe. It was invalidating and upsetting because it was like nothing I said counted”. 

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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