For most young people considering going to university, parents are the first source of advice, support and encouragement. They believe in us. They challenge us to be our best self. They help us make decisions about where to go and what to do. They are there for the emotional support, they are there for the practical issues, from helping us with the deposit for our first hall of residence, to driving us to college with a big box of kitchen paraphernalia. For most of us who made the leap from home to university life at 18 or 19, our parents were our biggest cheerleaders, and often our biggest chequebook too.
Now imagine, for a moment, making that leap without the safety net that a supportive family gives. Or even worse, making that leap with the active opposition of a family that doesn’t support your life choices and chances.
The practical barriers to getting to university from this starting point are huge. From not having the money for a deposit on your flat, to being homeless in the summer holidays because standard student lets are for 10 or 11 months, to having to prove to Student Finance Wales that you really are estranged from your family and not in the middle of a temporary fall-out; the bureaucracy of every part of your life seems stacked against you.
But there is another issue that can sometimes be overlooked – the emotional impact of having to face these kinds of life challenges alone.
Research by Stand Alone and the Unite Foundation found that mental health issues and anxiety are two of the three main reasons why estranged students defer or leave their studies early. Not only were estranged students more likely to experience low self-esteem than the general university population, that their self-esteem was even more damaged than students who were care-leavers. This is hardly surprising when you consider that while more than half of estranged students have experienced abuse or neglect, many others have been rejected by parents over issues such as their sexuality. However if we are to repair some of that damage we have to be proactive about supporting mental health and removing the main sources of anxiety.
It is fantastic to see that many of Wales’ universities already provide bursaries and welfare support to estranged students on a par with that provided to care-leavers as part of their Fee and Access plans, and I hope that over time the rest will follow suit. However if that support is going to be effective in helping those young people survive and then thrive at university, it needs to be met with holistic emotional support as well.
The Unite Foundation is the UK’s biggest provider of scholarships for estranged students. Our model provides three threads of support designed around the needs of the scholars themselves, working closely with 27 university partners. It is about providing a safe, stable home for success.
Firstly, the scholarship itself takes the form of three years’ accommodation – 365 days a year – for the full three years of their undergraduate course. We have found that the biggest anxiety that estranged students face is the fear of homelessness; almost a third of estranged students are affected by homelessness before their studies, and 15% are actually affected DURING their studies. We don’t just pay for the accommodation – we make sure that a stable, secure home is guaranteed. No deposits, no guarantors, no tenancy agreement nightmares, and definitely no summer homelessness.
Secondly, the Unite Students halls of residence we place our scholars in have a Welfare Lead officer in every hall. They have specialist training in mental health first aid and supporting care-leavers and estranged students, and are there to make sure that our scholars (and their other residents) are healthy and happy during their time at college. Having a welfare team in a private hall of residence is very unusual, but it is vital for our scholars that they have someone approachable to talk to at home – particularly as for our scholars, their hall is their only home.
Finally, we work extremely closely with our university partners, signposting their welfare and support services to our scholars and bringing different parties together through a formal welfare escalation model if one of our scholars is having more significant problems. This holistic approach, bringing support at home together with support at university, helps us to identify potential issues early and helps keep our scholars safe, happy and focused on their studies.
So what can Wales do differently?
Well firstly, there’s the issue of the name. There is no one single definition of “estranged” in Wales, and that could potentially leave people falling through the gaps in support. There is one definition in the Diamond Review, and there’s a different definition in the Student Finance Wales application forms. This time next year, when UCAS add an “estranged” student tick-box to their application form, there could well be a third one. They need to be harmonised so that young people who are estranged don’t have to jump over different sets of hurdles for different public bodies.
Secondly, I’d like to see HEFCW encouraging universities to do more for estranged students through their Fee and Access plans, guaranteeing them equal status with care-leavers and other vulnerable groups. Ideally, that support should look at both the emotional and the practical challenges that these groups face, and be flexible enough to respond to each student as an individual. While I recognise the value of light-touch regulation that allows universities to innovate and develop individual identities, we need to look at this issue from a student-centred perspective. This is surely an area where universities could collaborate to provide some consistency in what can be a bewildering time in someone’s life.
Finally, I’d like to see universities and other student landlords using their empty rooms over the summer to end the scandal of summer homelessness for estranged students. As I have said, 1 in 8 estranged students experience homelessness during their studies, and it is the biggest single cause of anxiety for this group. Yes there are some costs, but the accommodation is not widely used outside term time, and the benefits for those students are immeasurable.
As the Unite Foundation grows, and learns, we’re keen to share our experience with partners across the UK. We’ve commissioned a major piece of research examining which interventions make the most impact on care-leavers and estranged students, and we’re keen to come to Wales to share that knowledge and develop new ways of supporting care-leavers and estranged students.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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