Durham SU to establish new Association for Estranged and Care Experienced students

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An association supporting Durham University students who are estranged or care experienced is to be established at the meeting of the next Students’ Union assembly in November.

Palatinate spoke to Isi Ali and Tash Deacon from the Durham University Estranged and Care Experienced (DEaCE) Association about the challenges faced by estranged and care experienced students at university.

Estrangement is when an individual is disconnected or separated from their entire family or specific members, whereas care experienced students are described as any student who has spent time living in the care system, either in a care home or as a foster child.

Loneliness has been described as “one of the big things” that the Association are hoping to tackle, particularly “out of term time” isolation.

Mr Ali, who became estranged while at Durham University in November 2020 and is President of DEaCE, told Palatinate that estranged and care experienced students often spend the summer, Christmas, and Easter holidays “completely alone in Durham. It gets quite suffocating… just me and my bed.”

“No group or association in Durham has any support for those who stay over the holidays, [DEaCE] would be the first to do that.”

“No group or association in Durham has any support for those who stay over the holidays, [DEaCE] would be the first to do that”

isi ali, president of deace

According to Miss Deacon, who was placed into care at 14 years old and is Treasurer of DEaCE, care experienced students often “do not have the option to go home” in between terms. She noted that “the minute Durham hits the end of term, it becomes a ghost town” for those who have no home to return to. 

As part of this investigation, Palatinate spoke to Dr. Neil Harrison, Associate Professor in Education and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter, who reported that loneliness amongst care experienced students is a problem “that everyone is aware of” in higher education but there are no “great solution[s] yet.”

Dr. Harrison noted that there is a government scheme in place called ‘Staying Put’ that facilitates students returning to their foster families, but “the problem is about funding… there is not enough money to go around” and so care leavers cannot make use of this arrangement.

DEaCE Association also reported to Palatinate the financial difficulties and insecurities that estranged and care-experienced students sometimes face while at university.

Mr Ali told Palatinate that the financial support he receives does not account for the fact that the “government and Durham grant is meant to cover you for term time, but I need to budget accordingly to make sure that I can get through the holidays.”

As a result, he has sometimes struggled to make ends meet, going to a food bank a couple times and approaching the University for financial support.

Mr Ali attributes the financial challenges he has faced in part to having been missed by the system, because he was estranged after turning 18: “the social services failed to catch me in time, and so when everything fell apart, it was too late for me because I was already an ‘adult.’ I was 18, but they don’t care. So, there is no legal support or government support for people like me.”

“Estranged students really are a group of students who are some of the worst affected by financial pressures”

susan mueller from stand alone

Palatinate spoke to Susan Mueller, Director of Higher Education and Projects at Stand Alone, a charity that raises awareness of estrangement and supports estranged adults in the UK.

She commented that the data and research shows that “Estranged students really are a group of students who are some of the worst affected by financial pressures. Estranged students have to pay their own rent and find enough money to eat… many will simply not have the money for social interactions and it affects their academic work. The full student loan only covers 44 weeks of the year.”

Ms Mueller agreed that “it is very difficult to pick up” on students who become estranged after starting university. “Institutions cannot rely on UCAS data as to how many students have ticked the estranged students box on their application forms. Institutions need to go out and be proactive in looking for other ways to find those estranged students, no matter when they become estranged.”

In January 2019, Durham University signed the Stand Alone Pledge, which publicly commits the University to support students who are studying without the support or approval of a family network.

Miss Deacon, has described the “fighting” that she and other care-experienced students endure with their childhood local authority to ensure they receive the financial support that they are entitled to while at university.

Her local council of Leicester does pay her university rent but, she says, “that means I am financially dependent on the council. I have had a few issues in terms of them refusing to pay rent or being fickle about it. The University cannot assume that local councils are going to fully support care leavers.”

“Institutions need to go out and be proactive in looking for other ways to find those estranged students, no matter when they become estranged”

susan mueller from stand alone

Dr. Harrison of Exeter University explained to Palatinate that care experienced students are struggling for funding because “local councils are really pushed for cash” and “there is not a fixed package of support that has to be provided in law, it is up to local authorities… to meet their own promises.”

“Pretty much every university in the country now will offer financial bursaries to care experienced students”, but Dr. Harrison noted that these students “do not have a family safety net” to financially support them if “something goes wrong.”

Mr Ali and Miss Deacon, both final year undergraduates, discussed the fear of impending homelessness that estranged and care experienced students can face after they graduate.

Once university had ended, Isi Ali says “there is no safety net for estranged people […] I am going to be homeless in eight months-time, objectively homeless.” He hopes to stay with friends until he can find somewhere to live, but worries about students in his position who do not have “any options.”

Ms Mueller from Stand Alone emphasised to Palatinate “that a lot of estranged students have a real fear of homelessness… There is no government recognition of the difficulties estranged graduates find themselves in.”

For those estranged students hoping to undertake postgraduate study, Ms Mueller noted that “there is also no postgraduate estrangement support. Some institutions have looked at that and have introduced support, but that is relatively rare.”

“A lot of estranged students have a real fear of homelessness… There is no government recognition of the difficulties estranged graduates find themselves in”

susan mueller from stand alone

Dr. Harrison and Ms Mueller both praised the fact that some universities are trying to mitigate the so-called “care cliff edge” with a graduation or postgraduate bursary.

DEaCE Association’s ambitions include building a “network and support system” while “liaising with the University” to ensure estranged and care experienced students are best prepared to overcome these reported issues with finances and post-university housing.

In January 2023, Durham University joined four other North East universities, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teeside in signing the Care Leaver Covenant, that according to the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers “provides support for students at both pre-entry and post-entry level and includes areas such as finance, accommodation, wellbeing and employment”.

Research from Stand Alone has shown that 41% of estranged students had considered withdrawing from their course or suspending their studies due to money, stress and mental health factors, with similar trends reported for care experienced students.

Mr Ali has said that the Association will work to give “foresight” to students of “the options they have” in “dealing with guarantors, rent and budgeting” and other problems.

Miss Deacon told Palatinate that she hopes to “educate” and “raise awareness in the student body” of these experiences: “There are more people who are estranged or care-experienced, than we realise.”

Research from Stand Alone has shown that 41% of estranged students had considered withdrawing from their course or suspending their studies due to money, stress and mental health factors, with similar trends reported for care experienced students

DEaCE Association also has plans to work on easing an often-turbulent transition from secondary schooling to higher education.

Miss Deacon explained to Palatinate that “transition support for care experienced children, at least in my own personal experience, were limited… I started preparing for what my accommodation would be and what my home life [at university] would look like when I was 17.”

Despite that, when she reached adulthood at 18 that support felt “entirely hands off, and that can be quite a change to adjust to.”

Mr Ali commented that “As soon as you hit 18, all of the restrictions on your life are taken away and you’re suddenly falling overnight. All these things you couldn’t do, you can now do and that may lead many people to go down the wrong path.”

Following on from their own personal experiences with transition into higher education, DEaCE Association are setting up a volunteering project with local North East Care Homes in order to offer advice on preparing for adult life and post 16 and post 18 education, “whether that’s university, living semi independently, independently.”

Miss Deacon stressed that “you are not a failure, if you did not go to university.”

DEaCE Association’s ambitions include building a “network and support system” while “liaising with the University” to ensure estranged and care experienced students are best prepared to overcome issues with finances and post-university housing

The Office for Students has reported that only 13% of care experienced students enter university by age 19, compared to 43% of their peers.

Dr. Harrison told Palatinate that this is a postcode lottery as “some local authorities are much better about actually helping students to get to university.” He explained that the research shows that GCSE results are the crucial juncture that “can either propel a care leaver towards higher education or put them on a different path.” 

The future of research and policy support for estranged and care experienced students revolves around access to data, Ms Mueller told Palatinate, “to influence policy further, we really do need better data.”

Image: Durham University Estranged and Care Experienced Association

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