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Estranged students in higher education: Policy thoughts in context

Published in Editor's Choice, Inequalities, Latest Posts, Policy by on September 30, 2019

On 18th Sept. 2019 we were invited to introduce our research as part of an event organised by UK Stand Alone, and held at the Scottish Parliament. While the focus of the day was on students’ own experiences of estrangements, as represented by four self-identified estranged students, our research hopes to provide a generalizable, and anonymised, body of data upon which to generate overviews about what is happening – and what needs to happen – to support estranged students.

The Estrangement Challenge

The Estrangement Challenge

Some of the key aspects of our research on estranged students in Scottish Universities has now been published, and we’ve done various summary reports. The project, which aimed to interrogate how estranged students get on after they get into university, explored how resources – emotional and material – shape students’ experiences; this is understood and framed by us as a matter of ‘capitals’ (social, cultural, economic and symbolic), a frame deployed in much educational research.  The study has brought to the fore a wide range of discussions that have been pinpointed in different publications (listed below): we also developed a game, ‘The Estrangement Challenge’, to encourage staff and students to begin to think about what estrangement looks and feels like, and does to those affected. The game includes and implicates everyone in the discussion and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from interviewees, students, widening participation practitioners, academic staff and policy makers – please let us know what you think: are you able to roll a six, to even start the ‘lucky’ journal of post-compulsory education? How many times are you sent back to start again? What matters to you in selecting whether to attend a lecture or put in an extra shift at work? For the purpose of this blogpost we want to discuss some of the policy implications of our research as a call to action, but let’s also think about our own moves across the board game as potentially reflective of and relating to these wider conversations.

Our research has confirmed that family is widely regarded as a cornerstone of student support in post-compulsory education, an assumption that has been tacitly carried into administrative systems that aim to provide support to students within and beyond the University. When family support manifests as a crucial form of financial support (economic capital), as well as essential form of social capital making, rupture of family ties places students in rather disadvantageous position. What then becomes clear is that the social imagination surrounding university students, or the ‘student experience’ for that matter, is inescapably linked to the role of the family in supplementing and offering different forms of support during students’ academic lives. In light of this, our research points out that widening participation policies and practices need to be more attuned to the realities that mark estranged students’ experiences, impacted by the scarcity and instability of resources, often making for precarious and volatile experiences. In our research, we found that estranged students experience stigma around ‘estranged’ status and did not always easily identify as such, nor meet with narrow, and contested, criteria. Their experiences of ‘not fitting in’ extended to experiences of homelessness and housing insecurity, and an overall sense of difference from ‘traditional’ students. This aspect is detailed below through practical recommendations to policy.

 

Research Findings with policy implications

Definitions of estrangement would benefit from a more inclusive view of family relationships. Although understandings of estrangement in HE is still evolving given the lack of research in this area, current working definitions still tend to be restrictive and inflexible, offering little appreciation of the complexity of estrangement experiences, practices and hardships. In particular, there are specific aspects that require urgent attention:

  1. Age: the Office for Students limits the status of estrangement in higher education to students between 18 and 24 years. This age bracket is very limiting and unrealistic as many estranged students do not always follow a standard pattern of enrolment to university, and even when they do they may need to suspend or extend their studies because of lack of family support. This age stipulation is based on the image of the traditional student who is expected to neatly progress from school into university without any delays or hardships to account for. Many of the research participants fall outside this concrete age bracket precisely because of the impact of estrangement on their educational trajectories. Age thus becomes an aspect that needs to be revisited and ideally extended to a wider bracket to accommodate the empirical knowledge we now have of estrangement
  2. Period of proven estrangement: Estrangement is contested but fixed definitions, such as ‘no communicative relationship with either living biological parent’, are extremely restrictive. This is problematic as estrangement is not necessarily mutually agreed, nor permanent. Such definitions do not reflect real life experiences of students, where contact with parents and other family members may be intrusive, or abusive rather than chosen. Similarly the quantity of contact cannot replace a consideration of the quality of contact.
Estranged Students: Illustrating the Issues

Estranged Students: Illustrating the Issues

Housing is a key issue for estranged students. The implications for policy are multi-fold but they all rotate around a core issue: the lack of affordable accommodation. There are two issues that require policy attention regarding housing:

  1. Private accommodation is often more affordable, but poses considerable challenges in finding a guarantor, not only once, but for every time a new rental agreement is necessary.
  2. University accommodation is rather unaffordable, even when students have access to some financial support. Although there has been an effort by some Universities to extend accommodation to students 12 months of the year, instead of the traditional 9 months, little thought has been given to the high costs of accommodation. Affordable accommodation should be a priority in the widening participation agenda, otherwise estranged students are caught in a catch-22 situation with very little room for manoeuvre.
  • Notions of homelessness in the context of estrangement need to be regarded through a broader perspective than that of ‘sleeping rough’. Estranged students’ lack of a family base, compounded by meagre economic resources, can often result in experiences of being out of accommodation at different points of their studies. This often results in months of couch surfing and of not knowing from one day to the next what sleeping arrangements there might be. A large majority of estranged students report a constant fear of becoming homeless. Such preoccupations can lead to poor mental health.

Identity

  1. The sense of belonging is hard to develop within University settings, given that systems are traditionally and administratively organised to cater for the needs of ‘traditional’ students. This seems to remain true even in imagining ‘corporate parenting’.
  2. The label of estrangement can stigmatise students due to conservative understandings of the role of the family in one’s life (still enduring in and expected through university). Discussions regarding different family formats or absence of family in students’ lives is a conversation often lacking on campus.

Nonetheless, and this is important to highlight, university study is both an affirmation and transformation of identity for many estranged students. Despite all adversities estranged students face during their studies, Higher Education marks a change in their lives and with it the reinvention of their identities as independent learners, workers, and  university graduates.

Now imagine what these students would achieve if some of the barriers to their full participation in higher education were removed?

 

Download the Estrangement Challenge game here to learn more about the experiences of estranged students.

Further references:

Costa, C., Taylor, Y., Goodfellow, C., & Ecochard, S. (2019). Estranged students in higher education: Navigating social and economic capitals. Cambridge Journal of Education, 0(0), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2019.1648639

Taylor, Y., Costa, C., & Singh, S. (2019). Estranged Students: Illustrating the Issues. Retrieved from https://pureportal.strath.ac.uk/en/publications/estranged-students-illustrating-the-issues

Taylor, Y. (2019). ‘Estranged Students in Higher and Further Education’. SRHE News Blog https://srheblog.com/2019/03/05/estranged-students-in-higher-and-further-education

Taylor, Y. (2018) ‘The strange experiences of ‘estranged’ students’ Discover Society (blog) 2018 https://discoversociety.org/2018/11/06/the-strange-experiences-of-estranged-students/

 

This blogpost was written by Dr Cristina Costa and Professor Yvette Taylor

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Cristina Costa

Cristina researches educational and digital practices and inequalities at Durham University

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