Christmas is a wonderful time of year – it’s a time we can spend with family and close friends, reconnecting and sharing gifts. Or at least that’s the impression that adverts give. In reality at Christmas, there will be many students struggling with family issues, resisting going home or feeling out of place in a university town that they are trying in some way to belong to.
But for students estranged from family at the University of Oxford, this will hopefully change this week. Alongside the University of Cambridge, Oxford has signed the Stand Alone Pledge, an initiative set up to bring more support to students who may struggle at university without family behind them. It’s a massive step for two institutions where students who don’t have the support or approval of family have for decades existed under the radar.
The stigma and confusion around the term has meant the challenges of being estranged from family have long gone unexamined by higher education institutions. Before I undertook research into estranged students, there was little to indicate the number in this position who were studying at Oxford, except for Student Loan numbers.
But 41 students responded to my informal call out, and many more have reached out to me since then. The results of my research highlighted that even in a collegiate university where welfare is theoretically more accessible, there have been massive oversights. Forty-three per cent of the students who answered the survey talked about how they were constantly couch-surfing and homeless in holiday periods due to not being able to go home. Fifty-eight per cent talked about how it had contributed to long-term or serious mental health conditions while at university. The findings were shocking yet not unexpected.
Over the last few years, access has been highlighted as a key concern in higher education, and especially within Russell Group universities. As one Oxford student commented: “In signing the pledge, Oxford will make a statement about its intention to address the concerns regarding (lack-of) access, as well providing the conditions within which all students can thrive, especially for those from BAME or LGBTQ+ backgrounds for whom family estrangement is most likely to affect.”
For estranged students at Oxford, the University has taken a step in the right direction. The provision of supplementary payments, uncapped counselling sessions and guaranteed accommodation will change some students’ lives drastically, and for the better.
However, it can’t end with Oxford and Cambridge. Over 50 institutions in the UK have pledged, but it will only be when all institutions have recognised that students without family support exist, that estrangement will be seen as a legitimate issue that as many as one in five families encounter. It’s time to stop telling estranged students to ‘get over it’ and instead support them so they can thrive and not just survive at university.
Stand Alone is the only charity dedicated to campaigning on behalf of estranged students in higher education.