Hidden and overlooked: estranged young people in higher education

Yesterday, Stand Alone  hosted its first conference in Wales to discuss the challenges family estrangement brings young people in Higher Education. In the first in a series of blogs, Susan Mueller explains what those challenges look like.

For most young people going to university, their parents are their first source of support, advice and help. But what happens to those young people who are estranged from their families and facing life without the safety net that a supportive family can provide? How can Welsh society step in to support young people who are otherwise alone?


Estranged students are young people studying without the support and approval of a family network. Young people in this position have removed themselves from a dysfunctional situation and often have no contact at all with their family. Research we have undertaken at Stand Alone shows that a breakdown of relationships with parents and/or siblings is not a rare thing in our society today, and 1 in 5 families across all communities and backgrounds are affected by estrangement. Key causes of a breakdown of family relationships can include:

  • emotional abuse.
  • mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships.
  • a clash of personality or values.


Young people may also be distanced or removed from their family for ‘coming out’ as LGBT+ or for rejecting cultural norms, such as forced marriage or honour-based expectations. Estranged young people are in a different position to care leavers who have been looked after by their local authority. Despite having similar family backgrounds, evidence shows that the vast majority of young people who become estranged from their family do so without local authority or social service involvement. For some of these students, it is because they are too old. For others, they may never have told anybody about their difficult family situation for fear of judgement, or there is no entitlement to be looked after, which is true of those young people who are disowned for coming out as LGBT+ or rejecting cultural values of their family of origin.


There are a significant number of students in higher education who are living independently, without parental support, as a result of family estrangement. Some will be estranged before applying, others become estranged during the course of their study. They can struggle to various degrees with financial hardship, homelessness, lack of emotional support, mental health, isolation and stigma. Consequently, the drop-out rate of estranged students in HE is significantly higher than average.


If estranged young people are not supported within their institution, they are likely to struggle along in isolation. A proportion may not make it through higher education without additional encouragement and material and financial initiatives that replicate the support normally provided by parents. This means that a group of young people, who lack family support, and who do not have a corporate parent, may not reach their full potential. Thus, Welsh society may lose the contributions of these young people, and their rights to a fair chance in life may be fundamentally impacted.


“I don’t have a “safety net” if something goes wrong with studies/work and I can never really just take a break. I think that makes me more anxious about the future and generally more stress-prone.” Estranged student


Estranged young people don’t have a corporate parent and are largely hidden and invisible amongst their peers. This is mainly because as a group they do not fall into any existing widening participation categories – lack of family support or contact is not a measure of disadvantage. In Wales estranged students are not a target group for the Reaching Wider Programme while looked-after children and care leavers are.


But things are starting to happen for estranged students in Wales. HEFCW recognised that estranged students are at a disadvantage and are keen to explore with us at Stand Alone and Welsh Government how these students might be supported better in the future. To date 2 Welsh universities have taken the Stand Alone Pledge, a public commitment to help estranged students overcome disadvantage: Cardiff University and Swansea University. The Stand Alone Pledge commits Higher Education institutions to develop better support for estranged students by improving their support mechanisms in four key areas – finance, accommodation, mental health and wellbeing, and outreach and transition.


Stand Alone ran our first conference in Wales for practitioners from higher education providers, policy makers and sector bodies on 7 May.  The conference showcased best practice from both Cardiff and Swansea universities in supporting estranged students, and a panel of current estranged students spoke about their experiences of accessing and studying in higher education. Following the conference, we want to work with stakeholders across Wales to make sure estranged students are heard, their struggles are recognised both in national and institutional policy and support is developed for them.


Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash


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Susan Mueller is Project Director at Stand Alone, a charity that supports people who are estranged from their family or children

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