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Choosing between earning and learning: a new report on the experiences of estranged students in higher education

  • 22 November 2022
  • By Buttle UK

Buttle UK is a children’s charity providing grants to children and young people who have gone through crisis and are living in poverty. Buttle UK’s grants provide essential items for children’s education, homes and wellbeing. This blog was inspired by the findings of a forthcoming research paper we have written with seven estranged young people, ‘Surviving Estrangement: The experiences of young people through COVID-19 and into a cost-of-living crisis’, which will be available on our website in December 2022.

Estranged young people (EYP) are largely invisible. They have often experienced abuse, trauma and neglect. Family breakdown has led them to live independently at a young age. Living without the financial and emotional support most of their peers rely on during their teens leaves them extremely vulnerable. Most are homeless, experiencing significant housing fragility. However, they are not widely acknowledged as a distinct group with distinct needs by many of the sectors they interact with, as care experienced young people are. Nevertheless, we know that most young people interact with education settings at least until the age of 18, meaning that higher and further education settings can be primary actors in driving change.

In 2022, we undertook a co-produced piece of research, The Estranged Young People Project, with seven EYP. Through this project we attempted to calculate the number of EYPs in the UK. Our conservative estimate puts the number at somewhere between 93,000 and 206,000 young people aged between 16 and 20. This is a staggering number. A group this big deserves to be better understood and recognised.

The seven young researchers spoke to 37 EYP and 21 frontline workers (in education, health and social care) to learn just how much more support EYP need. The findings of the report explored themes of mental health crises, financial barriers, and a housing emergency, amongst others. Education was a significant theme. Our report found that many young people we interviewed failed to get to higher education, or even had the option to go, as a result of their estrangement. Those that make it to university or alternative provision are at a high risk of failure or withdrawal due to their circumstances. 

Our report identified several key issues. Estranged young people struggle to access their lessons and coursework. This is due to their lack of access to critical resources such as laptops or other IT equipment, as well as stationery, a desk or even somewhere to study. Financially, their priorities are paying for heating, food and keeping a roof over their head. A parallel issue is the need to finance these essential items. Our respondents described the impossible choice between earning and learning, working extremely long hours to juggle all of their commitments. These EYP also made it clear that holding down their studies while living in disruptive, chaotic circumstances was nearly impossible, especially those living in refuges or hostels.

Many EYP have had multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to contend with. Interviews with these young people revealed their significant trauma, inability to concentrate, and low motivation acting as barriers to their success in education. Our respondents also demonstrated high levels of mental illness following estrangement. Along with going through mental health issues without any familial support, they found themselves further excluded by teaching practices that marginalise those with depression or anxiety. In particular, remote learning acts as a barrier to many. This is either because EYP do not have the technology, stability at home or mental wellness to truly engage. The gaps in knowledge and understanding caused by this are a source of concern. The following quotes from EYP reflect these issues:

[The tutor] said that I needed to prioritise [my education] over work, and it really annoyed me because she was talking about it in front of the whole class. So, I kind of snapped at her … I said, ‘well, if you’re willing to pay for my rent, and my food for the month, I’ll be more than happy to do whatever you want’.


It was very hard to concentrate. Most of the lessons were online which was very hard. I felt like I was losing a lot of my motivation to finish the course.


I was doing a course but I’m restarting it next year because of my situation along with COVID, being in temporary accommodation. It’s not the best foundation to really start something, it’s a bit rocky.


I basically just gave up on [education]. I decided I can’t do it. It’s just disruptive to myself …. I couldn’t focus on the exams. So, I basically stopped doing it, it was a complete collapse.


Some staff members who work with EYP added:

Some of my young people were missing out on university because they weren’t able to do exams.

Frontline worker

Many don’t have their own computer, or a decent phone which many YP who live with their family have and this caused our EYP to fall behind with their coursework and their IT skills.

Frontline worker

It should not be forgotten that the interviews, findings and writing up of the report were carried out by seven estranged young people, four of whom were in higher education. They, amongst the interviewees, recollected the experiences that can make higher education so difficult for EYP. Experiences include not having a guarantor to rent a student house; having nowhere to go when accommodation closes for the summer; and knowing nobody in their peer group truly understands their situation.

But these young people are not alone. Our estimate demonstrates that there are likely many thousands of higher education students going through estrangement. 

Buttle UK has several major recommendations to make, and our next step is to bring together a group of cross-sector stakeholders to look at how these changes can be taken forward. The recommendations that are most important for the higher education sector are:

  1. The creation of a standardised definition of estrangement, to be used across social care, education, and health sectors. 
  2. Access to safe, secure housing for estranged young people in education. Paying particular attention to the vulnerability of the inhabitants must be a priority, given their age and adverse lived experiences. 
  3. The creation of more support networks and open conversations to help estranged young people in education feel less alone, as is already being championed by charities such as StandAlone and the Unite Foundation.
  4. The education sector, particularly further education colleges, can do more to seek out estranged students proactively by training staff to recognise the signs and offer more holistic frontline support. We recognise that the higher education sector is already on this journey, but there are too many gaps in provision for this group of students: there are pockets of good practice but there are too few universities providing support and proactive intervention.

We hope this blog has offered new insights into the experiences of EYP. If you would like to find out more, please visit Buttle UK’s website, where the full report, Surviving Estrangement: The experiences of young people through COVID-19 and into a Cost-of-Living crisis will be available in early December 2022.

Over the coming months, HEPI is partnering with the Unite Foundation to provide a platform for a series of blogs on supporting care leavers and estranged students in higher education. The Unite Foundation is a charity offering accommodation scholarships to care leavers and estranged students at universities. See their recent report, ‘Supporting care-experienced and estranged students in higher education – responding to COVID-19’, produced with sector partners.

Explore our series with the Unite Foundation:

Other HEPI publications on care leavers and estranged students:

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1 comment

  1. Ros Lucas says:

    With the need to self support and continue education, it might be more productive for young and estranged young people to be given much more information about alternatives to HE.

    Getting a job, so many now available, and using Open University or on-line qualifications is one option.

    For those with relevant Level 3 qualifications, the growing Degree Apprenticeship options offer a real alternative.

    These youngsters need to be given this information and a Career Session offered to help them understand more about their options.

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