When I first arrived at the University of Cambridge, I truly believed that the fact that I was estranged from my parents was an embarrassing secret that I had to hide. I was steering discussions at formal dinners away from the topic of “and what do your parents do?” and manufacturing quick changes of subject to prevent my ‘true identity’ being revealed. Like a much more dull and nervous Batman. It was tiring preventing the truth from slipping out.
It is important to note that I have been looking after myself, by myself, for quite a while. Officially since the age of sixteen, when I moved into supported housing alone. But that doesn’t mean that it has become easy. And alongside holding down a degree and learning where I fitted in to a world that appeared alien to me, I could have done with a bit more support.
In one of the first meetings I ever had with my tutor he asked me: “So are you looking forward to going back home to be with family over the Christmas break?” I was confused and shocked by such an insensitive question, responding with “Have you not read my file?” He replied: “No, should I? Sorry I’ve been quite busy.”
Becoming involved in access initiatives, programmes, which aim to make university more accessible to those typically underrepresented in higher education, thankfully propelled me to confront my embarrassment. I realised that I was being a complete hypocrite: I stood there passionately telling bright teenagers from underrepresented groups that they could belong at the University of Cambridge, whilst on a day-to-day basis placing my own identity as an underrepresented student under panicked surveillance and repression. So, I stopped doing that.
I jumped to the other extreme by becoming the Care Leaver and Estranged Students Officer for a university-wide campaign. I created and distributed a survey exploring the experiences of care leavers and estranged students within the University of Cambridge. What I discovered, though upsetting, was not all that shocking.
Multiple accounts showed estranged students had been driven into financial hardship. Why? They had not been informed that they were entitled to an enhanced bursary until late into their degree. Estranged students are entitled to this to bursary to cover living costs outside of term as they of course have to be totally self-sufficient. This bursary is vital. Without it, I would have no chance of being able to complete a degree.
The findings also highlighted the difficulties many estranged students encounter once they apply for the bursary. If you verify pre-university on your student finance application that you are estranged and select to share this data with your university, you should be given the enhanced bursary. Though this was the case for some people, others had to jump through ridiculous hoops to access the bursary despite The Student Loans Company already having verification of estrangement, myself included. My bursary didn’t arrive until a month after I had completed my first-year exams. For my entire first year my college had to lend me the amount I should have been receiving.
The data also showed difficulties relating to accommodation. Many estranged students pay extra to stay within their college over vacation periods. One particular respondent to the survey described having to move all their possessions single-handedly into off-site college accommodation over the vacation period. This is because most colleges rent their on-site accommodation out to conference guests over vacation periods for profit. They described having an allotted time to move from the one room into the other. With it not being enough time, they had to bin some of their stuff each time they moved. This was of course very upsetting and disruptive for them. Do such tight windows help the student feel part of the institutional community?
Aside from finances and accommodation, there are also cases of ineffective pastoral support. Pastoral support at the University of Cambridge operates in a system of a ten-minute slot with your tutor at the start and then another at the end of each term. Usually the conversation is light and superficial, a box-ticking exercise. If you require anything beyond that, you must contact your tutor to ask for more of their time. However, disclosing a very personal matter such as estrangement is difficult when people are busy. It is especially difficult if your tutor is uninformed on such matter and if like me, your tutor simply hadn’t thought to read your file.
Though there are some appalling stories, there are also stories of diligent members of staff in this institution who have supported estranged students incredibly well.
One such story is of a student who experienced serious mental health issues in their first year, worsened by the realisation that they would have no home to return to if they intermitted. Intermission is a complete break from studies for medical reasons. Their college recognised the student’s situation and their real need to intermit. The student was given college owned accommodation to stay in and the amount of money they would have received if they were still receiving a student loan and bursary. The deal was that in return the student attended counselling (covered by the college), revision sessions for their course and participated in access work.
The result was that a vulnerable student did not become homeless, and that student is now flourishing. The college did their job and did it very well, above and beyond what most may expect. Yet this case of tailored and successful support should not be the ideal, it should be the norm.
I took the findings of my survey to the Pro-Vice Chancellor. We talked about what best practice for estranged students needs to look like, and, as a result, the university have signed the Stand Alone Pledge. This means that the University of Cambridge has publicly committed to improving support for estranged students across four key areas: finance, mental health, accommodation, and outreach.
I look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the Widening Participation Office on making these improvements. And hopefully, we can make the ideal the new norm. It’s no secret that University of Cambridge is a well-resourced institution, as much as it excels at research and teaching, it must also lead in pastoral innovation.