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‘It’s painful and difficult’: the students estranged from their families | Education

For Lily-Rose Sharry, a second-year student at Cambridge University, being estranged from her family has coloured her university experience in “the most mundane to the most extreme ways”. University has been a series of difficult questions, the answers to which most students take for granted. Who will bring her stuff? Who will support her when she’s struggling from her workload, or pay for her accommodation in the summer months? Where will she go at Christmas? And who will celebrate her good grades?

The difficulty is compounded by how hard it is to gain estranged status from the Student Loans Company (SLC). For Sharry, that nearly didn’t happen, which would have meant withdrawing from her university place. “It’s a notoriously painful and difficult process,” she says. She recalls applying to the SLC for the additional funding she needs to top up the student loan, and having to reluctantly discuss “really personal stuff about things you tried to bury years ago” with her apologetic sixth-form science teacher.

This is why Sharry is now advising her university on how to better support estranged students. With the help of charity Stand Alone, Cambridge and Oxford universities have introduced new bursaries targeted at estranged students – including, crucially, those who aren’t necessarily categorised as such by the SLC. They have also committed to offering additional counselling resources and accommodation support over the holidays, when other students return to their families.

According to Stand Alone, 9,000 UK students have no contact or relationship with their families. They have often been rejected after coming out as LGBT, refusing practices such as forced marriage or female genital mutilation, or divorcing and then remarrying. Some are disowned for pursuing education against their families’ wishes. Many of these vulnerable students become homeless over the summer, or find themselves alone at Christmas. They are three times more likely to drop out of university.

Oxford and Cambridge are the latest two universities to join 64 others in signing up to Stand Alone’s pledge to support estranged students. Chief executive Becca Bland says there’s a growing awareness of the issue among universities. “Everyone was already aware that families gave students a massive amount of support,” she says. “But we’ve given senior management the understanding that it’s crucial to have family around you, to have a guardian of aspiration who can protect students’ ambitions at university and help them not to drop out when chips are down.”

Currently, the biggest problem is means-testing: “[Estranged students] may come from wealthy backgrounds, so the existing measure of disadvantage excludes them.” Added to this is the SLC’s strict definition of estrangement as meaning no contact whatsoever, which it has enforced by using used controversial surveillance measures such as spying on social media. Bland emphasises that it’s “relationship quality” that should count.

Stand Alone has focused its efforts on persuading senior leaders of the difficulties estranged students face, training welfare staff to understand family breakdown, and urging universities to keep counselling services open throughout the year. This Christmas, they’re encouraging universities to host communal meals to ensure estranged students don’t feel alone. Ideally, though, Bland wants to see the UK follow Scotland’s example, where universities become “corporate parents” to students lacking parental or guardian support. “Universities in Scotland have a completely different attitude. They understand they have to look out for these students,” she says.

Ellie MacDonald recently ran a survey of estranged students for Oxford students’ union. She was taken aback by the level of response, as well as how “common and wide-ranging” the issues were. The main concerns related to homelessness and accommodation – summer lets can be expensive in Oxford, both in colleges and in the rental sector. As a result, many students end up couch-surfing or take up part-time work to make ends meet, even though the university advises against it.

Lily-Rose Sharry.

Lily-Rose Sharry. Photograph: Lily-Rose Sharry

Mental health problems are prevalent, too. “Coming from unstable homes, and feeling they don’t belong anywhere, increases a sense of dislocation – that nobody really cares about them – and a feeling of loneliness,” she says. Some experience trauma directly connected to the estrangement: one student who responded to the survey said they struggled to concentrate whenever they received abusive texts from their mother.

Martin Williams, pro-vice chancellor for education at Oxford, says the university’s commitment to estranged students is in part a response to the students’ union’s “impressive” case for improved support. “We hadn’t seen data on that before. It was useful to see evidence on the level of distress and disadvantage these students suffer,” he says.

Williams is also exploring whether connecting estranged students with each other might be beneficial. “We’re aware it can be an isolating experience if they’re the only people from their year group,” he says. “We’re looking at whether we can do something around clustering studs who are staying [in Oxford over the summer] without putting them in a strange students’ ghetto.”

Since there’s so little information on these students, providing the right support will inevitably be a matter of experimentation at first. Williams thinks the whole university sector is “going on a journey about learning about the breadth of backgrounds our students come from”, and making sure they’re adequately supported.

For Sharry, the most important step is to raise awareness of estrangement. “I think for a lot of pastoral and financial tutors at Cambridge it wasn’t that they didn’t care, they just didn’t know it really existed,” she says. “The pledge brings attention to the fact that a lot more people are in that situation than we would think. I’m just thrilled that the pledge exists and is being more and more circulated, and universities are more aware.”

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