HE provider good practice briefing for estranged students

This good practice briefing is written for staff working in universities and colleges and supports the introduction of the new flag to identify estranged students in the UCAS application for 2023 entry. We have worked with Stand Alone to outline the common challenges for these students, share examples of good practice being done around the UK to improve access to and success in higher education, and provide considerations ahead of the new question.

If you're a student, please visit our information and advice page for students who are estranged from their parents. 

If you're a teacher or adviser, our adviser toolkit contains practical tips and advice on supporting students who are estranged from their parents. 

Who are estranged students?

Estranged students are young people studying without the support and approval of their parents due to a breakdown in their relationship – this might be their biological, step or adoptive parents, and sometimes their wider family members. Although they are most likely to remove themselves from damaging parental relationships between the ages of 16–19, many will become estranged while already studying in higher education..

While no official overall statistics are collected about the number of estranged students in UK higher education, the Office for Students estimates 3,000 estranged students enter universities and colleges in England only each year. In 2018/19 we know that 8,478 students under the age of 25 were classed as estranged from their parents and received full support from Student Finance England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and approximately 150 in Scotland. However, the actual number of estranged students in the UK is likely to be far higher, as this number captures only those students who met the funding bodies’ definition of ‘estranged’, and excludes those who applied for funding through the NHS.

As a result of the increased challenges faced by estranged students, Office for Students’ data shows they are less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 than their non-estranged peers (13 percentage points lower in 2018-19), and more likely to drop out (their continuation rate was 8.2 percentage points lower in 2017-18) – highlighting the importance of putting measures in place to help students reach their full potential.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics quoted are from Stand Alone research.

A note on care experienced students

Estranged students differ from care leavers in that they often leave their parental home without local authority intervention, however, some will have experienced short periods of being in care before they turn 16. As ‘care experienced’ young people, they may qualify for the same help offered to care leavers in Scotland; elsewhere in the UK, they would not meet the criteria to receive the same support as a care leaver, although their support needs are similar. While the number of providers offering support is growing, many estranged students are unaware it is available – and others are reluctant to discuss such sensitive matters with a stranger.

The good practice briefing for supporting care experienced students cross-references estrangement and outlines where overlaps may occur – including with kinship care (below).

A note on students in kinship care

Kinship care, where a child is brought up by a relative or friend, may be a formal arrangement (e.g. fostering or Special Guardianship Order) – these children are considered as living ‘in care’ and applicants to higher education will typically be eligible for support as a care leaver.

However, the majority of kinship care arrangements are informal (i.e. the child is not considered ‘in care’) and students from these backgrounds may not meet a provider’s definition of a care leaver due to the lack of local authority recognition (although this is recognised as care experience in Scotland), so it is important to include these students within any estranged student policy and support package. 

Research from Grandparents Plus shows that young people in kinship care tend to achieve lower than their peers at GCSE, and less likely to go to university (16% compared to a third of their peers)

Students in kinship care may be able to stay with relatives during holiday periods (although this is not necessarily true for all), and apply for student finance independently as an estranged student. However, it is important to remember that they may not receive support from their parents to meet costs not covered by their maintenance grant or loan – such as advance payments and deposits for accommodation.

From 2021 (for 2022 entry), the UCAS application will list kinship care in the help text for the care experience question. 

To ensure higher education providers are inclusive of these students, we recommend their definition of estrangement refers to a breakdown in the student’s relationship with their parents rather than the wider family network.

The UCAS application

To support the identification of students with individual support needs, UCAS has introduced a series of new questions into the application for 2023 entry. One of these questions enables students who are estranged from their parents to self-declare their circumstances:

Would you consider yourself estranged from your parents (i.e. you are not in contact with and supported by your parents)? Yes/No​

An estranged person is someone who no longer has the support of their parents, and often also other family members, due to a permanent breakdown in their relationship which has led to ceased contact. This might mean your biological, step or adoptive parents or wider family members who have been responsible for supporting you in the past. 

Select Yes if you feel this description applies to you. 

Find out more about applying to university if you are estranged from your family.  

If you select Yes, your information will be treated in confidence, to help the university or college provide support for you. It may also be used for monitoring purposes to inform and improve support for future students who are estranged from their parents. 

If you have been in local authority care, you may be considered ‘care experienced’. Find out more about applying to university if you’ve been in care.  

For more information about answering this question read our FAQs. 

This question is supported by extended FAQ-style help text to clarify why we ask this question, how the student’s information will be used, and the support they may be able to access by sharing their circumstances.

To support estranged applicants, we have developed a personal statement guide with the help of Stand Alone and estranged students. This will help applicants highlight the strengths and skills gained from their personal experience, and may also help flag estrangement to higher education providers.

Use of this question 

This question has been introduced to help universities and colleges connect estranged students to the support and information they will need to make the transition to higher education, and succeed in their studies. 

This information is not verified by UCAS, therefore universities and colleges are expected to make contact with the student directly to discuss their support needs in more detail and check eligibility for any bursaries or other support packages. UCAS expects this information will be shared with staff members responsible for arranging any support or helping students through the application and into higher education as required (e.g. the student support team, widening participation team).

Three key challenges for estranged students

Research by Stand Alone highlights three key areas where estranged students need support:

1. Accommodation

Holiday periods are particularly difficult for estranged students who are unable to return to their parental home; this results in additional short-term accommodation costs or temporary homelessness. In fact, approximately 30% of estranged students register as homeless, or consider doing so, before they start university. It is hard for these students to pay a deposit upfront or to provide a guarantor. Some guarantor schemes preclude private rentals and multiple occupancy which can drive costs up. Further practical challenges may include moving away and buying the necessary equipment (e.g. bedding, kitchen utensils) – another way the loss of a family network impacts on the experience.

2. Financial

When applying for means-tested support, estranged students can only access the minimum loan if they do not provide parental income details. However, they can apply as ‘independent’ students, by providing evidence (such as a supporting statement), and the funding bodies will consider each application individually. 

This includes students living in informal kinship care arrangements Note that ssome students may find it hard to provide this evidence. It’s also important to remember that students will not have access to extra financial support from their parents where expenses exceed their student finance, which may prevent them from participating in social or enrichment activities.

3. Mental health and wellbeing

Students become estranged from their parents for many reasons and are often from an unstable background. As such, they may have experienced trauma, or feel isolated and ashamed of their circumstances. For those students who do not have their parents’ practical and emotional support, there can be a lack of motivational support and encouragement to cope with academic and personal stress. They are also prone to anxiety about the future – a lack of parental support and social capital can present challenges when looking for graduate employment. Indeed, problems with mental health are a key factor in estranged students withdrawing from their HE course. Additionally, Grandparents Plus found 44% of young people in kinship care reported being prone to anxiety or depression – 24 percentage points higher than their peers.  

Considerations ahead of the introduction of the new question

To support pre-applicants

  • Is there a central contact with whom estranged students can discuss any problems or support needs before they apply or arrive? Are their contact details easily accessible online?
  • Is the support you offer clearly signposted on your website (preferably on a dedicated page for estranged students) and through student services?
  • Are estranged students mentioned in your widening participation strategy and plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England or Outcome Agreements in Scotland)?
  • When you engage with secondary schools (e.g. through outreach), do you raise awareness of the support available to young people who are estranged from their parents in higher education? Is your messaging sensitive to those who are not supported by their parents?
  • When attending events (e.g. UCAS exhibitions), do you ensure information is available for students with individual support needs? Are your representatives aware of how to answer any questions about support?
  • Are marketing and recruitment teams aware of the support available to estranged students at your provider, and is this flagged at recruitment events and in marketing materials? 
  • Are staff familiar with how to support estranged students to apply for student finance – such as through practitioner guidance from the Student Loans Company and inforrmation and advice from the Student Awards Agency Scotland?

To support applicants

  • What processes are in place to (sensitively) share information about an applicant’s declared circumstances with your student services team? Are all parties involved aware of their responsibilities and next steps?
  • Is the information relayed to the student’s academic tutor? Are academic staff aware of the needs of estranged students, or would they benefit from further information or training?
  • How will you provide estranged students the opportunity to alert you to their support needs later in the admissions process (e.g. during enrolment)?
  • Do you check for references to an applicant’s family circumstances in their personal statement or reference – even if they have not ticked the box?
  • Is there someone at the university or college who can help students apply independently for student finance and advise them about gathering the required evidence?
  • Does your university or college consider estranged students within any contextualised admissions policy?
  • Can you take challenging circumstances such as estrangement into account, either at the application stage or later at Confirmation?
  • Do you contact students early in the cycle so they know who to contact with any questions or support needs, instead of after Confirmation? 

To support transition

  • How is information relayed to your accommodation staff – and when?
  • Who is responsible for contacting estranged students to arrange appropriate accommodation, and discussing any issues regarding deposits and/or the need for a guarantor? Are these issues addressed early enough to allay any anxiety and prevent withdrawal?
  • What assistance is available to help an estranged student who is having practical difficulties in moving away to university or college (e.g. with transport or equipment)?
  • Do you contact students ahead of their arrival to provide details of health and wellbeing support services available through the university, and to encourage contact to discuss any concerns or needs?
  • What measures are in place to support students with establishing social networks and integrating fully into wider student life?
  • Do students fully understand what support they will receive before they arrive, and know what to expect on their first day?

To support ongoing study and graduation

  • Are the three key challenges for estranged students (as outlined above) covered, or is further provision needed?
  • Will support be reviewed periodically (e.g. to accommodate changes to the student’s circumstances)?
  • Do you have clear processes in place to help a student who becomes estranged or homeless during their studies? Can students find this information easily?
  • Do you offer support to help students make the transition out of higher education and into employment – estranged students may not have a family network to help them with this important step. Stand Alone’s What Happens Next 2019 report explores the challenges.
  • In the event of a campus needing to close temporarily (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic), what measures are in place to help students who are unable to return home?
  • Are staff familiar with guidance on the impact of graduation grants and bursaries on students’ Universal Credit claims once they finish their studies – has this been taken into account when planning support during this period?

If you do not already offer a discrete support package for estranged students, consider the support you offer to care leavers and explore how this may be extended to include students who are estranged from their parents. What support is available to all students that would be of particular benefit to estranged students (e.g. hardship funds, counselling services, help with accommodation costs). Could these elements be signposted together in one place (e.g. a dedicated web page), or offered as a package?

Examples of good practice and support for estranged students

130 universities and colleges across the UK refer to estranged students in their 2019/20 widening participation plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England and Outcome Agreements in Scotland), and there is a diversity of provision available. Below, we present a selection of good practice from these providers, which we hope will inspire others that are considering how they might be able to support estranged students more effectively. This may be through discrete support packages or extensions/adaptions of existing provision to incorporate their needs:

Examples of ‘quick wins’

  • A named point of contact for advice and support from the point of enquiry through to graduation, with their direct line and email address published online, and examples of how they can help (e.g. help with applying for student finance and gathering evidence).
  • Ensure the named point of contact is listed on the Stand Alone website – and kept updated. 
  • Uncapped counselling sessions or link with external providers to offer low-cost or free counselling support.
  • Mental health advisers and counselling staff made aware of estrangement and the potential impact on individual students.
  • Definitions of estrangement refer to a breakdown in the relationship with a student’s parents, rather than their family, to ensure students in informal kinship care are included – policies and support for estranged and/or care experienced students also cover those who have lived in informal kinship care.
  • Clearing ‘scripts’ give students an opportunity to share any personal circumstances or support needs.
  • Careers support, including information about part-time and holiday employment.
  • Financial information and advice, including support with funding applications (including student finance applications) and associated benefits by a trained member of staff.
  • Regularly check the Student Loans Company’s campaigns page and make sure you are registered to receive updates from your regional SLC account manager.
  • Support Estranged Student Solidarity Week (November).
  • A dedicated web page for estranged students, outlining the support available and how to access it, including:
    • who to contact for information and advice
    • signposting mental health and wellbeing support on campus
    • information about bursaries, grants, hardship funds, and eligibility (including food banks)
    • details of year-round accommodation for estranged students
    • links to local and national support services

Examples of medium-term changes – may require changes to current plans, policies or processes

  • Develop your own estranged students’ bursary, offer Unite Foundation Scholarships, or give priority access to university hardship funds. Ensure there is access to financial advice to help with budgeting.
  • Guaranteed university accommodation covering all holiday periods, with priority given to those who are homeless.
  • Act as guarantor for accommodation, including that owned by the university or college and accommodation partners (or waive this requirement), and private rental – both single and multiple occupancy – to ensure students can access suitable, affordable accommodation and live in households of their choosing. 
  • Waive the need for a deposit for university-owned accommodation, or offer a grant/loan scheme (including accommodation partners).
  • For private accommodation, help the student secure suitable accommodation, and liaise with the landlord to negotiate any barriers as required.
  • Priority interviews for roles as student advocates and mentors.
  • Academic staff informed/trained about the needs of estranged students and the support available.
  • Offering a short-term (interest free) loan to help them to pay for their deposit/ moving costs until their first student finance payment is received.
  • Help with costs such as: study materials, field trip fees, graduation costs, and the cost of accommodation over the holiday periods.
  • ‘Starter kits’ for new students that include bedding and kitchen equipment.
  • Estranged students included in your widening participation and outreach work.
  • An up-to-date policy for estranged students which clarifies the support they can expect, and staff roles and responsibilities.
  • Publicise the support you offer in marketing and literature sent during the application and offer-making journey, and during open days.
  • Opportunities to enable estranged students to meet others in the same position (virtually or face-to-face).
  • Student mentors and/or online mentoring support.
  • Activities such as mindfulness sessions, cultural and sporting activities proactively marketed to estranged students throughout the year.
  • Information about estranged students included in the provider’s widening participation work – and links made with local charities, foyer and homeless shelters to include in outreach.
  • Outreach team supports estranged students with their UCAS applications and access to scholarships, and makes appropriate referrals to student advice and wellbeing services.
  • Help with fees for clubs and societies, to help address barriers to socialising and reduce loneliness.
  • Emotional support or personalised contact during holiday periods, particularly over the Christmas holidays.

Examples of longer-term changes – may require planning and substantial changes

  • Progress tracking of estranged students, with an evaluation of the support provided, and an impact assessment to ensure support is effective.
  • Establish a clear working relationship with your students’ union to ensure the support you offer is comprehensive and joined-up.
  • An induction day in the summer holidays to help with transition, including a tour of the campus, introduction to student support and wellbeing services, and a chance to discuss support required.
  • Sign up to the Stand Alone Pledge
  • Join the Unite Students scholarship scheme.