Research to understand the experiences of estranged students in further and higher education in Scotland
In March 2022, the Scottish Government commissioned ScotCen Social Research (ScotCen) to undertake research on the experiences of estranged students in Scotland.
About the study
The overall aim of the research was to understand more about the experiences of, and available evidence on, estranged students in Scottish further education (FE) and higher education (HE) institutions. The research aligns with the Scottish Government’s 2021 manifesto commitment to improve the support available to estranged students. It aimed to understand more about:
- the available published literature on estrangement and estranged students - what it tells us and what we may learn from it;
- the contexts of estrangement for students engaging with FE and HE in Scotland;
- the insights and experiences of estranged students engaging with colleges and universities in Scotland, including any barriers/issues faced;
- possible solutions.
This research found that being estranged impacted on students’ experiences of further education (FE) and higher education (HE) in Scotland in many ways, and these echoed those identified in the literature. Not having enough money to afford living essentials let alone the wider student experience, and concerns about accommodation were the most prominent. These were closely followed by experiences of trauma and its lasting effects on students’ physical, mental health and wellbeing, and broader feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. Interviewees also highlighted how estrangement had adversely impacted on estranged students’ experiences of school, college and university in terms of attainment, transitions and progression.
The challenges estranged students face whilst studying at college and university are numerous, and while a range of tailored support is available through both Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) and colleges and universities, currently it is only addressing some of their needs. This research illustrates how estranged students can ‘fall through the cracks’ of policies designed to assist them. Issues around understanding of eligibility, a lack of knowledge of what it means to be estranged, and low awareness of support (from both SAAS and institutions) led to students not being able to access the appropriate, existing support on offer to them. Support varied across FE and HE institutions, and tended to rely on students themselves self-declaring as estranged, and then proactively seeking out and accessing the support. If students are unaware of the support they are entitled to, or are unable or reluctant to declare that they are estranged to their institution, there is a danger that this vulnerable group will not access the necessary assistance.
The issues raised in this report, particularly in relation to financial hardship, accommodation insecurity, and poor mental health increasingly affect students from all backgrounds (Hall, 2022; NUS, 2022). However, these issues were amplified for estranged students, an already vulnerable group whose lives are likely to become even more challenging given the rising cost of living. Stakeholders, named contacts and students often compared the experiences of estranged students with those of care experienced students. Many felt the challenges faced by the two groups were comparable, though estranged students lack the support nets of additional funding and corporate parenting afforded to care experienced students in recent policy.
There are a number of ways in which governmental and institutional support can be improved. Increased funding whilst studying would improve the lives of estranged students and the financial difficulties they experience, though it may not fully resolve them, given the significant costs of accommodation and cost of living increases. There was a general consensus that a more proactive approach by colleges, universities and SAAS, to increase awareness of estrangement and the support available (financial, named contacts and mental health) for estranged students was needed. There was a call for estranged students to receive at least the same level of funding available to care-experienced students. Finally, the implementation of a national guarantorship system was recommended to assist estranged students access accommodation more easily.
The study consisted of both desk-based research and qualitative interviews. A rapid review of the UK literature was undertaken, along with a review of Scottish colleges and universities’ websites aimed at estranged students to explore the types of institutional support available. Online/telephone depth interviews were conducted with 25 estranged students enrolled on FE, HNC/D and degree programmes at colleges and universities across Scotland. Interviews were also undertaken with 6 stakeholders (policy makers, institutions and those in the third sector), while focus groups were held with 7 college and 5 university named contacts for estranged students. Forty-three people participated in the research.