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Weekend Reading: Supporting independent students; a University of York perspective

  • 20 May 2023
  • By Professor Tracy Lightfoot
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Tracy Lightfoot, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Teaching Learning and Students at the University of York, and Arthur, a Biomedical Science Student at the University of York.

At this uncertain time, students face many barriers to continuing their education journey. The cost-of-living crisis and the challenges around housing uncertainty, including renting from private landlords, mean we at the University of York are increasingly concerned about the difficulties faced by our most vulnerable groups.

We have a vast array of financial support packages for all of our students that range from energy grants and food vouchers, through to emergency loans, as well as dedicated housing support for our care experienced and estranged students. Our commitment to our estranged students was recognised in the Stand Alone Pledge Awards in 2021 for overall excellence, but we still need to, and want to do more to support this group who do not have the access to parental support, on which many of our students rely during their time at University.

We strive to make sure the experience of our estranged students matches their peers, and our dedicated staff work collaboratively across the University to reduce barriers and stand as advocates, and allies of these independent students.

We know that one of the barriers and challenges faced  is the provision of year round accommodation and the difficulties of finding alternate accommodation once term-time has ended, and we are delighted, in partnership with the Unite Foundation, to offer a Accommodation Scholarship to cover the cost of accommodation for an estranged student at the University of York. This crucial scheme will help to remove barriers to study for students and support them on their educational journey.

Below Arthur, a Biomedical Sciences student at York, shares a personal experience of some of the challenges faced by independent students and how support can make such a tangible difference to each student.

My journey to the University of York: an independent students’ experience

The day I held the results papers for my A-levels, confirming that I was indeed going to university, my heart leapt from my chest. Suddenly, the reality of leaving the city I spent my formative school years became all too real, and I imagined what kind of life I’d have, finally being free to transcend into real, tangible, adult freedoms. “Your parents must be so proud”, the waitress beamed when I told her what course I was studying, sat at the restaurant where I was celebrating with a friend. I hadn’t the heart to tell her they had no idea. I had spent my school life dodging their footsteps, working in retail full time even though I wasn’t supposed to, and doing my coursework in McDonald’s just to avoid going home. By the end, I was living on my best friend’s spare mattress.

Although I became estranged during my A-Levels, I wasn’t “officially” recognised as estranged until towards the tail end of my first year of university. I didn’t know what support was out there for me, and I think a small part of me was too proud to seek that help. I was determined to do it all on my own: working, scrounging for money, sleeping in my off days, too exhausted to study. When I sat my first winter exams, realising I could barely complete half of the papers, it had quickly dawned on me that the life I had was unsustainable.

Needless to say, my grades began to suffer. It was hard to focus on my degree when all I could think about was how was I going to afford rent? Where was I going to live after the accommodation term ended?

Socialising at uni had also been difficult. It can be hard to relate to students who suffered from homesickness, who related to each other based on where they went with their families in the summer and before uni. Of course there’s always more to a person than that but, especially in the beginning, it was all I could do not to feel perpetually alone.

Socialising with other independent students is something else entirely. You feel like you’re getting to know other students based on who they are, rather than what experiences they have. There’s far less pressure, you feel totally at ease – and that’s such a rare and precious feeling. The Independent Students’ support network organised plenty of events during term, including trips! They helped me to socialise and fit in (perhaps this would be easier for students more extroverted than me, being a hermit didn’t help!).

I first got in contact with the university’s Independent Students’ team, who have been nothing but supportive, patient, and kind. They helped me organise the estranged student’s funding and bursary, without which I wouldn’t have been able to survive.

I’m lucky enough now that with all the support, I have managed to reach my master’s year and life as an Independent Student is comfortable, fulfilling and rewarding. Never be afraid to ask for help, or discouraged from doing whatever it is you want to do because you’re worried about support. The most important thing is, you will survive this. It may not be easy (it rarely is) but it is not impossible, and you are never alone.

The University of York were awarded funding for an accommodation scholarship through work that the Unite Foundation, in partnership with Astra Foundation & Dulverton Trust, launched at the end of 2022 as part of the Home at University work to expand the number of university partners offering accommodation scholarships for care leavers and those estranged from their family. You can read more about the impact of accommodation scholarships for care leavers and those estranged from their families through the independent analysis conducted by Jisc.

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1 comment

  1. Sains Data says:

    Could you share any examples or success stories of how the support and resources provided by the university have positively impacted the educational journey and outcomes of independent students?

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