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Stand Alone: 2015 – 2024: 10 years of changing higher education for estranged students

  • 15 March 2024
  • By Susan Mueller

Stand Alone has announced its closure and its higher education work is coming to an end. Will the sector continue to advocate for estranged students and drive policy change?

In 2015, Stand Alone, a small charity founded in 2013 to offer support to adults estranged from family, embarked on the ambitious project to change higher education for students whose relationship with their parents and wider family network had broken down, i.e. were estranged.

Why? Raising awareness by writing about many different facets of estrangement in the press and media opened a floodgate: Stand Alone was contacted by university students sharing their experiences of the obstacles they faced to succeed in higher education and asking the charity to help. Quickly Stand Alone understood that ‘estrangement’ was unrecognised as a barrier to higher education. These students who were living independently and were totally self-reliant faced an uphill battle. And they called on Stand Alone to help.

Stand Alone needed to find out more and gather evidence. The first piece of research ‘New Starts: the challenges of higher education without the support of a family network’ in collaboration with the Unite Foundation and published in 2015 highlighted the profiles and vulnerabilities of both care leavers and estranged students and the differences in the support available to the two groups. Further research on the risks for those estranged or disowned by their family to access and succeed in higher education painted a bleak picture of an unseen, unrecognised, vulnerable group of students.

For Stand Alone the first step was to engage higher education institutions. In 2016 the Stand Alone Pledge was launched. 114 higher education providers across England, Scotland and Wales signed this public commitment to recognise the support needs of estranged students at every stage of their student journey. They pledged to develop their support provision for this target group in the four main areas of need identified by Stand Alone’s research: finance, accommodation, mental health and pre-entry outreach & transition. Graduation and moving on were added later. Stand Alone’s many conferences and webinars over the years ensured learning and best practice has been shared across institutions.

Stand Alone’s relentless campaigning for recognition of estrangement in national higher education policy has embedded estrangement into mainstream sector consciousness: simplification of the student finance evidencing estrangement process, inclusion in Access and Participation plans and the Office for Students’ Equality and Opportunity Risk Register, improvements to student finance for estranged students alongside care experienced students by Scottish Government, identification of estranged applicants via UCAS, official annual publication of SLC data by HE provider, HESA data collection on estrangement in Scotland and Wales (England yet to follow) are just a few of Stand Alone’s achievements.

The voice of estranged students has been central to Stand Alone’s work. The charity has provided a safe platform for estranged students from across many different higher education providers to share their stories and experiences, has made them visible and enabled their views to be heard and, in their own words, they have felt celebrated and welcomed. These courageous, motivated individuals have been instrumental in influencing change, be it by meeting with their Vice Chancellor or speaking at Stand Alone’s parliamentary events in Scotland and at Stand Alone’s national practitioner conferences.

Of course, there is more to be done

Not every university, let alone higher education provider, has support in place for estranged students. And the level of support for estranged students at those that do is often less than that available to care leavers, despite the former having less statutory support than the latter.

There is a dearth of research on estranged students which is key to understanding this cohort and to influencing change. Although the identification of estranged students through UCAS and the collection of institutional data is improving, much-needed sector-wide data is still rudimentary.

Schools and colleges lack understanding of estrangement and the support available for higher education. They are unable to provide targeted information, advice and guidance for estranged students pre-entry. As a result, many young people are put off.

And what about the much-heralded alternative routes into higher education? How accessible are apprenticeships to estranged young people? Are they even an option?

Passing on the baton

Stand Alone has given estranged students a voice. And this voice continues to grow stronger through student-led networks and communities. Conversations to continue an Estranged Students Solidary Week are being held with one such national network. NUS-Scotland has been an invaluable partner in driving policy change in Scotland for estranged students and will continue to fly the flag for them.

Higher education providers need to ensure their institutional support for estranged students continues to improve. Some have already signed the Stand Alone ‘Legacy Pledge’ to do just that and hopefully, many more will follow in the coming weeks.

Sector bodies and third-sector organisations are exploring with Stand Alone what elements of Stand Alone’s work they are able to continue.

But to fully ensure that estranged young people and adults do not stand alone ever again, estrangement as a barrier to success in higher education needs to be embedded in all aspects of national fair access and widening participation policy and its regulatory requirements.

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