The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Widening participation, student engagement, alienation, trauma and trust

Caroline S Jones and Zoë Nangah

Social mobility target setting and progression data collection have long been on the agenda for UK HE policy makers and are widely documented, debated and researched (Connell-Smith and Hubble, 2018; Donnelly and Evans, 2018; Social Mobility Commission 2017, 2019; Phoenix, 2021). Widening Participation (WP) policy underpins much Government target setting, dressed up as a key factor in improving the nation’s social mobility issues.  Much of the work undertaken in this field focuses upon the recruitment of students from the WP demographic onto Higher Education (HE) programmes, with data tracking at key points of the student’s journey as a measuring tool (Vignoles and Murray, 2016; Robinson and Salvestrini, 2020; Phoenix, 2021).  However, there appears to be a distinct lack of focus on the student as an individual human being, who arrives into the HE world with prior lived experience, and a lack of consideration of the impact of future life experiences aligned to the student’s individual psychological status.

This omission can have a profound effect on a student’s ability to engage in their programme of study, thus affecting their ability to progress and succeed, contributing to barriers to engagement (Jones and Nangah, 2020). On-entry assessment currently does not capture the presence of traumatic histories, and students may not feel able to fully disclose their experiences until they have established a tutorial connection. Furthermore, HE systems may not have access to information, either on-entry or during studies, that enables appropriate tutorial support and adequate referral, due to GDPR (2018) restrictions and confidentiality principles. Therefore, academic tutorial expertise and understanding how to support students from a psychological perspective might need to be considered using specific relational elements in a humanistic manner. At system level, internal and external support for students focusing on their holistic needs might also improve access and progression.

These ideas led us to conduct a deeper investigation into the psychological needs of students, to seek out methods, practices and potential policy changes which might reduce barriers to student engagement. This new knowledge could enable policy makers, HEIs, HE staff and departments to improve their current practice and  strengthen progress in terms of the national social mobility agenda (Augar, 2019). Examining barriers to student engagement for the WP demographic and specifically focusing on the links between psychological alienation theory (Mann, 2001), trauma and trust (Jones, 2017) in the HE context, led us to this new angle on the conundrum of meeting social mobility targets. Furthermore, recent neurological research, such as brain and amygdala responses to threat within specific groups (Fanti et al, 2020), could be explored further within HE student populations. Students who are affected by trauma could be better supported by using research-informed practices that can then be embedded in HE, focused on individual requirements.

To making a difference to current social mobility rates and targets we need to explore new concepts to inform and drive change in the sector. Our systematic literature review (Jones and Nangah, 2020) focused on the analysis of links between alienation theory (Mann, 2001; Jones, 2017), experiences of prior, existing or present traumatic experiences and the student’s ability to trust in the academic systems within which they are placed. The presence of traumatic emotional experiences in WP student populations connected to psychosocial and academic trust alienation theory contributes to understanding engagement barriers in HE. Using PRISMA guidelines, 43 publications were screened based on inclusion/exclusion criteria. Our review identified students’ experiences of trauma and how this had affected their HE educational engagement. It documented support strategies for student success and improvements in HEIs’ commitment to meeting WP agendas. This underlined the need for HEIs to commit to the social mobility agenda in a way which is aligned with barriers to student engagement. Current tracking and support systems may need to be augmented by tutorial systems and training for academic staff in relational tutorial systems, emphasising the presence of a consistent tutor. Jenkins (2020) suggests a single-session approach for addressing student needs within a short-term counselling model, but recognises this may not be suitable for students with more complex requirements. Thus, longer-term interventions and individualised counselling support approaches are arguably needed to support this demographic. 

To decrease barriers to student engagement we need to focus on psychological well-being and collaborative HEI strategies to improve recruitment, retention and ultimate success. Our systematic review argued that deeper understanding of the complexities of student needs should be embedded within HE teacher training programmes and curriculum delivery. Extending teaching skills to embed psychological understanding and practice delivery skills would not only work to meet Government targets but also raise aspirations: ‘ …with the right approach, the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next can be broken’ (Social Mobility Commission, 2017: 8).  Fulfilling the moral and corporate responsibility of HEIs to support the success of WP students might need new insights. Focusing on student engagement in HE with a better understanding  of psychological alienation theory, trauma and trust could be used by multiple HE audiences and across countries to improve practice and drive both political and educational change for the most disadvantaged individuals. It is time to view HE students from WP backgrounds as individuals, to respect their aspirational aims and value their experiences in a way that best suits their subjective requirements, so that they may progress and  succeed, helping to improve social mobility.

SRHE member Caroline S Jones is an applied social sciences professional with extensive experience in the children and young people field and HE programme leadership. She is a Tutor in the Education Faculty at Manchester Metropolitan University and was previously a Lecturer at the University Campus Oldham and at Stockport University Centre. Twitter: @caroline_JonesSFHEA. LinkedIn:

SRHE member Zoe Nangah has been a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in HE for 16 years across Psychology, Social Sciences, Counselling and Childhood Studies disciplines. She is currently a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader at the University of Chester for the MA Clinical Counselling course. Zoe is a qualified counsellor and supervisor and has conducted research into emotional experiences within student populations and explored perceptions of the support services. Twitter @zoenangah 


Fanti, KA, Konikou, K, Cohn, M, Popma, A and Brazil, IA (2020) ‘Amygdala functioning during threat acquisition and extinction differentiates antisocial subtypes’ Journal of Neuropsychology, Volume 14, Part 2. (June 2020) 226-241, British Psychological Society

Jenkins, P (2020) ‘Single session formulation : an alternative to the waiting list’ University and College Counselling Volume 8, issue 4, November 2020

Mann, SJ (2001) ‘Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: Alienation and Engagement’ Studies in Higher Education 26 (1): 7–19

Robinson, D and Salvestrini, V (2020) The Impact of Interventions for Widening Access to Higher Education London: Education Policy Institute: TASO

Social Mobility Commission (2017) State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission

Social Mobility Commission (2019) State of the Nation 2018-2019: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission

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Pandemic and post-pandemic HE performance in Poland, UK and Ukraine

by Justyna Maciąg,  Mateusz Lewandowski, Tammi Sinha, and Tetiana Prykhodko

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The original  statement can be found here.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have had to change their delivery and ways of working at incredible speed. The disruptive innovation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is having profound impacts on all stakeholders of HEIs. This study reports on the results of the project which has brought together 3 perspectives from Poland, the United Kingdom and the Ukraine. The purpose was to evaluate and compare the performance of Universities during this period. Performance is understood as assessment of support given by a University to its stakeholders in the following spheres: organisational, technical, technological, competency and social. This study will contribute to better understanding the context of value creation by Universities during the pandemic and post-pandemic period.

We took the perspective of HEI stakeholders into consideration (students, academics and administrative staff). Their opinions and comments were collected by interviews in the form of an online questionnaire with some open questions. We intended to give them a space to share their perspectives, emotions and feelings caused by the lockdown. The questions carried out thematic analysis around the following issues: 1) organisational (planning and communication); 2) technical, (platforms available, teaching methods); 3) technological, (bandwidth, equipment); 4) competency (your own learning and comfort with online learning); 5) social conditions (your environment for study) of higher education experience within the current COVID-19 pandemic and follow up research post-pandemic. The surveys started in the middle of June 2020 and continued till October 2020. Sampling followed the snowball method. Participants were self-selecting with links shared for the online Microsoft forms and Google questionnaires. 

We collected 396 questionnaires, 296 students, 100 university staff and academics (240 in Poland, 133 in Ukraine, 24 in UK). We would like to thank all of our participants for their contribution and candour.

First we would like to start with some qualitative analysis of students and staff responses in the questionnaire. The open questions were used to diagnose their experiences related to measures taken by Universities during lockdown. They were also asked to highlight the most and the least effective  solutions offered. We decided to use an Ishikawa Diagram to analyse the possible causes for their most and least solutions identified. We analysed the factors around the COVI19  problem in order to provide insights and possible solutions for an effective and thriving  ‘post-pandemic University’.

We grouped responses under headings showing below in the Ishikawa Diagram.

Chart 1 Ishikawa Diagram

There are some obvious similarities between these countries and some differences. We draw a conclusion that in each country the situation was similar, the teaching-learning process was transferred into our Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), and staff started remote or hybrid work (both academics and admin staff). The difference was notably the mechanism of this change: in the UK it was deemed more incremental change, in Ukraine and Poland the change was more radical. The proof of this is that in the responses in Poland and Ukraine respondents indicated several solutions which aren’t coordinated and supported by the Universities (i.e. using a social media for teaching-learning process, lack of integration of different e-learning platforms). Whereas in the UK many Universities used VLEs as ‘business as usual’. 

The common themes identified for research in investigated countries were the expectation of support in different areas, not only in a teaching-learning process, but also in equipment (provision, repairs), financial aid, mental sphere, and competence development etc. The findings implied that the expectations of the students and staff support needs were not fully met at this time. Universities were in survival mode and the change management process was lacking in many areas.

Next, we analysed the background given by quantitative analysis of University performance in the technical, competence and organisational sphere (evaluation was carried out using a 5-point Likert scale). The results of research in each country are shown on Chart 2.

Chart 2 Evaluation of the support given by university during lockdown (Poland, Ukraine, UK)

We also investigated the need of support and help provided during the pandemic period studied. The results are presented in Chart 3.

Chart 3 Percentage of respondents who declare that they need support or help

The results of research showed that ‘University’ is mentioned the most, as the expected supporter for students and staff, both academics and administrators. The importance of social support also has appeared in our results. People are looking for assistance among colleagues, thus creating a proper, strong internal social relationship is valuable for them. 

Table 1 The frequently mentioned sources of support

Our key conclusion from this work, at this time, is the importance of support and setting expectations of what support is available in HEIs. We  draw a key finding that the understanding of value delivered by ‘the University’ has to change, and leave behind the neoliberal concept of value for money. We need to expand the understanding of value, taking into account the necessity of tolerance perceived inefficiencies within the university. University staff and students have had to adapt very quickly, and use all of their skills and tenacity to deal with this situation. Creating and co-creating value within universities has always been challenging, however the creativity of staff and students has pulled this sector through it. We have all had to become disruptive innovators.

Justyna Maciąg, PhD,  and Mateusz Lewandowski, PhD, are lecturers and researches in the Institute of Public Affairs at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland. 

Tammi Sinha, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Operations and Project Management, Director of the Centre for Climate Action, University of Winchester UK. Tetiana Prykhodko is Head of the Program of Analysis and Research,  City Institute at Lviv, and a PhD student at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine.

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Customer Services

by Phil Pilkington

“…problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para 38 (original emphasis)

The paradigm shift of students to customers at the heart of higher education has changed strategies, psychological self-images, business models and much else. But are the claims for and against students as customers (SAC) and the related research as useful, insightful and angst ridden as we may at first think?  There are alarms about changing student behaviours and approaches to learning and the relationship towards academic staff but does the naming ‘customers’ reveal what were already underlying, long standing problems? Does the concentrated focus on SAC obscure rather than reveal?

One aspect of SAC is the observation that academic performance declines, and learning becomes more surface and instrumental (Bunce, 2017). Another is that SAC inclines students to be narcissist and aggressive, with HEI management pandering to the demands of both students and their feedback on the NSS, with other strategies to create iconic campus buildings, to maintain or improve league table position (Nixon, 2018).

This raises some methodological questions on (a) the research on academic performance and the degree of narcissism/aggression prior to SAC (ie around 1997 with the Dearing Report); (b) the scope and range of the research given the scale of student numbers, participation rates, the variety of student motivations, the nature of disciplines and their own learning strategies, and the hierarchy of institutions; and (c) the combination of (a) and (b) in the further question whether SAC changed the outlook of students to their education – or is it that we are paying more attention and making different interpretations?

Some argue that the mass system created in some way marketisation of HE and the SAC with all its attendant problems of changing the pedagogic relationship and cognitive approaches. Given Martin Trow’s definitions of elite, mass and universal systems of HE*, the UK achieved a mass system by the late 1980s to early 1990s with the rapid expansion of the polytechnics; universities were slower to expand student numbers. This expansion was before the introduction of the £1,000 top up fees of the Major government and the £3,000 introduced by David Blunkett (Secretary of State for Education in the new Blair government) immediately after the Dearing Report. It was after the 1997 election that the aspiration was for a universal HE system with a 50% participation rate.

If a mass system of HE came about (in a ‘fit of forgetfulness’ ) by 1991 when did marketisation begin? Marketisation may be a name we give to a practice or context which had existed previously but was tacit and culturally and historically deeper, hidden from view. The unnamed hierarchy of institutions of Oxbridge, Russell, polytechnics, HE colleges, FE colleges had powerful cultural and socio-political foundations and was a market of sorts (high to low value goods, access limited by social/cultural capital and price, etc). That hierarchy was not, however, necessarily top-down: the impact of social benefit of the ‘lower orders’ in that hierarchy would be significant in widening participation. The ‘higher order’ existed (and exists) in an ossified form. And as entry was restricted, the competition within the sector did not exist or did not present existential threats. Such is the longue durée when trying to analyse marketisation and the SAC.

The focus on marketisation should help us realise that over the long term the unit of resource was drastically reduced; state funding was slowly and then rapidly withdrawn to the point where the level of student enrolment was critical to long term strategy. That meant not maintaining but increasing student numbers when the potential pool of students would fluctuate – with  the present demographic trough ending in 2021 or 2022. Marketisation can thus be separated to some extent from the cognitive dissonance or other anxieties of the SAC. HEIs (with exceptions in the long-established hierarchy) were driven by the external forces of the funding regime to develop marketing strategies, branding and gaming feedback systems in response to the competition for students and the creation of interest groups – Alliance, Modern, et al. The enrolled students were not the customers in the marketisation but the product or outcome of successful management. The students change to customers as the focus is then on results, employment and further study rates. Such is the split personality of institutional management here.

Research on SAC in STEM courses has a noted inclination to surface learning and the instrumentalism of ‘getting a good grade in order to get a good job’, but this prompts further questions. I am not sure that this is an increased inclination to surface learning, nor whether surface and deep are uncritical norms we can readily employ. The HEAC definition of deep learning has an element of ‘employability’ in the application of knowledge across differing contexts and disciplines (Howie and Bagnall, 2012). A student in 2019 may face the imperative to get a ‘degree level’ job in order to pay back student loans. This is rational related to the student loans regime and widening participation, meaning this imperative is not universally applied given the differing socio-economic backgrounds of all students.

(Note that the current loan system is highly regressive as a form of ‘graduate tax’.)

And were STEM students more inclined toward deep or surface learning before they became SAC?  Teaching and assessment in STEM may have been poorand may have encouraged surface level learning (eg through weekly phase tests which were tardily assessed).

What is deep learning in civil engineering when faced with stress testing concrete girders or in solving quarternion equations in mathematics: is much of STEM actually knowing and processing algorithms? How is such learnable content in STEM equivalent in some cognitive way to the deep learning in modern languages, history, psychology et al? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of disciplines but differences, deep differences, between rules-based disciplines and the humanities.

Learning is complex and individualised, and responsive to, without entirely determining, the curriculum and the forms of its delivery. In the research on SAC the assumptions are that teaching and assessment delivery is both relatively unproblematic and designed to encourage deep, non-instrumental learning. Expectations of the curriculum delivery and assessment will vary amongst students depending on personal background of schooling and parents, the discipline and personal motivations and the expectations will often be unrealistic. Consider why they are unrealistic – more than the narcissism of being a customer. (There is a very wide range of varieties of customer: as a customer of Network Rail I am more a supplicant than a narcissist.)

The alarm over the changes (?) to the students’ view of their learning as SAC in STEM should be put in the context of the previously high drop-out rate of STEM students (relatively higher than non-STEM) which could reach 30% of a cohort. The causes of drop out were thoroughly examined by Mantz Yorke(Yorke and Longden, 2004), but as regards the SAC issue here, STEM drop outs were explained by tutors as lack of the right mathematical preparation. There is comparatively little research on the motivations for students entering STEM courses before they became SAC; such research is not over the long term or longitudinal. However, research on the typology of students with differing motivations for learning (the academic, the social, the questioning student etc) ranged across all courses, does exist (a 20 year survey by Liz Beatty, 2005). Is it possible that after widening participation to the point of a universal system, motivations towards the instrumental or utilitarian will become more prominent? And is there an implication that an elite HE system pre-SAC was less instrumentalist, less surface learning? The creation of PPE (first Oxford in 1921 then spreading across the sector) was an attempt to produce a mandarin class, where career ambition was designed into the academic disciplines. That is, ‘to get a good job’ applies here too but it will be expressed in different, indirect and elevated ways of public service.**

There are some anachronisms in the research on SAC. The acceptance of SAC by management, by producing student charters and providing students places on boards, committees and senior management meetings is not a direct result of students or management considering students as customers. Indeed, it predates SAC by many years and has its origins in the 1960s and 70s.

I am unlikely to get onto the board of Morrisons, but I could for the Co-op – a discussion point on partnerships, co-producers, membership of a community of learners. The struggle by students to get representation in management has taken fifty years from the Wilson government Blue Paper Student Protest (1970) to today. It may have been a concession, but student representation changed the nature of HEIs in the process, prior to SAC. Student Charters appear to be mostly a coherent, user-friendly reduction of lengthy academic and other regulations that no party can comprehend without extensive lawyerly study. A number of HEIs produced charters before the SAC era (late 1990s). And iconic university buildings have been significantly attractive in the architectural profession a long time before SAC – Birmingham’s aspiration to be an independent city state with its Venetian architecture recalling St Mark’s Square under the supervision of Joseph Chamberlain (1890s) or Jim Stirling’s post-modern Engineering faculty building at Leicester (1963) etc (Cannandine 2002).

Students have complex legal identities and are a complex and often fissiparous body. They are customers of catering, they are members of a guild or union, learners, activists and campaigners, clients, tenants, volunteers, sometimes disciplined as the accused, or the appellant, they adopt and create new identities psychologically, culturally and sexually. The language of students as customers creates a language game that excludes other concerns: the withdrawal of state funding, the creation of an academic precariat, the purpose of HE for learning and skills supply, an alienation from a community by the persuasive self-image as atomised customer, how deep learning is a creature of disciplines and the changing job market, that student-academic relations were problematic and now become formalised ‘complaints’. Students are not the ‘other’ and they are much more than customers.

Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.

*Martin Trow defined an elite, mass and universal systems of HE by participation rates of 10-20%, 20-30% and 40-50% respectively.

** Trevor Pateman, The Poverty of PPE, Oxford, 1968; a pamphlet criticising the course by a graduate; it is acknowledged that the curriculum, ‘designed to run the Raj in 1936’, has changed little since that critique. This document is a fragment of another history of higher education worthy of recovery: of complaint and dissatisfaction with teaching and there were others who developed the ‘alternative prospectus’ movement in the 1970s and 80s.


Beatty L, Gibbs G, and Morgan A (2005) ‘Learning orientations and study contracts’, in Marton, F, Hounsell, D and Entwistle, N, (eds) (2005) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

Bunce, Louise (2017) ‘The student-as-consumer approach in HE and its effects on academic performance’, Studies in Higher Education, 42(11): 1958-1978

Howie P and Bagnall R (2012) ‘A critique of the deep and surface learning model’, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4); they state the distinction of learning is “imprecise conceptualisation, ambiguous language, circularity and a lack of definition…”

Nixon, E, Scullion, R and Hearn, R (2018) ‘Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfaction of the student consumer’, Studies in Higher Education  43(6): 927-943

Cannandine, David (2004), The ‘Chamberlain Tradition’, in In Churchill’s Shadow, Oxford: Oxford University Press; his biographical sketch of Joe Chamberlain shows his vision of Birmingham as an alternative power base to London.

Yorke M and Longden B (2004) Retention and student success in higher education, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press

Marcia Devlin


Supporting disadvantaged students is more expensive than you think

By Marcia Devlin

A national election looms in Australia and while no-one is under any illusion about the likelihood of higher education being a key issue for the Australian public when they are considering for whom to vote, those in the sector are hopeful that, at the very least, higher education policy common sense will prevail. Depending on your particular higher education interests, the focus of such policy common sense will differ. For me, at least partly, the focus will be on equity policy.

I recently led to completion a national study that looked in part at the costs of supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in Australian universities. We used a mixed methods approach, incorporating quantitative analysis of national higher education data and qualitative exploration and validation.

The complexity of university finances, the opaque nature of equity funding and the generally low level of understanding of the precise costs of supporting low SES students in the sector provided challenges to meeting the project brief. That said, we used data from 37 universities over ten years and a sophisticated quantitative methodology and detailed consultation with senior executives at four universities on the quantitative findings to test their validity. The results were, as one Vice-Chancellor described them, “stunning”.

We found that the average costs of supporting low SES undergraduate students are around six times higher than the costs of supporting medium and high SES students. This was for a university with an average number of undergraduate low SES enrolments. At the postgraduate level, the average support costs for low SES students are around four times higher than those for medium and high SES students for a university with an average number of postgraduate low SES students.

These are, indeed, stunning findings.

We found that the kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.

We found that the additional cost incurred in supporting a low SES student compared to other students include those inherent on the support listed above and additionally, the costs inherent in the interventions required to address disadvantage throughout school and university.  We found that the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities, also contributed to the cost differentials.

In simple terms, we found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.

Because low SES students are not a homogeneous group, we found that additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. As will be unsurprising to those working with equity group students, depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage. In the four universities consulted, there were different costs in, and different approaches to, supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses, whether the student was undergraduate or postgraduate and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

There are a number of policy implications that an incoming Australian government might like to consider:

  • Given universities that are enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions, moving from activity-based to mission-directed costing may be a fruitful area for further exploration.
  • Given that the costs of supporting low SES students are four to six times higher than those of supporting medium and high SES students, consideration could be given to applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’ in university funding for low SES numbers. In rudimentary terms, this would mean that each low SES student would attract four times (postgraduate level) to six times (undergraduate level) more funding than otherwise like students.
  • Given the lack of homogeneity of low SES students and the differential costs for different universities in supporting low SES students, consideration could be given to the distribution of funding to support low SES students according to the investment/cost need of a university/campus/area in which a campus is located, rather than according to the number of students at each university who meet the technical definition of ‘low SES’. This would also help reduce perverse incentives to seek only the least costly low SES candidates.

I’m not overly optimistic about these findings being immediately embraced and celebrated by either side of politics. I am hopeful, however, that a government genuinely interested in equity might recognise that properly funding universities to enact their missions might be purposefully conceived as an investment that lowers social disadvantage and ultimately improve economic outcomes for both graduates and communities. In other words, I’m hoping policy common sense will prevail.

SRHE Fellow Professor Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. The study referred to above was funded by the Australian government through the National Priorities Pool

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Estranged Students in Higher and Further Education

by Yvette Taylor

This report is based on research by Yvette Taylor (Strathclyde) and Cristina Costa (West of England) as part of an SRHE funded project ‘Exploring ‘Estrangement’ in Higher Education: Standing Alone or Settling In?’

Estrangement feels very taboo… it’s almost like having to out myself a lot of the time to people… people are more familiar with the idea that your parents are divorced or have died or whatever“ (Jennifer, 31)

It’s like a rope round you pulling you back as you’re going forward, but I don’t think it’s a barrier that stops, I think it’s a barrier that’s just there and to be aware of.” (Robert, 29)

Estranged students can be defined as a group of young adults who have unstable, minimal or no contact with their parents and/or their wider family networks. In the context of Scotland estrangement status among students was only recognised in 2016 through campaigning initiatives supported by Stand Alone and ButtleUK. To date, only seven Scottish universities and colleges have explicit policies in place to support this group as signatories to the Stand Alone Pledge.

Little is known about the experiences of estranged students either in the UK or internationally: based on interviews (n=23), this study represents the first of its kind in Scotland, exploring how estranged students navigate education structures and the institutional and interpersonal resources available. It examines estranged students’ further and higher education experiences, identities and expectations, how these are supported and managed and what educational and employment aspirations are fostered and developed. While it is clear that steps have been made in helping education institutions identify and support estranged students, often estranged students do not fit pre-existing widening participation policies or funding categories (eg Bland, 2018; UCAS, 2017); discretion, care and flexibility are needed.

Students become estranged from their families for a number of reasons, including emotional and physical abuse, clash of values and mismatched expectations around family roles. In addition, estrangement can also relate to ‘divorce, honour-based violence, forced marriage, and family rejection of LGBTQI+ students’ (Blake, 2015).

Research Findings

  • Definitions of estrangement are restrictive and inflexible, offering little understanding or appreciation of the complexity of estrangement experiences and practices and hardships: the Office for Students limits the status of estrangement in higher education to students between 18 and 24 years old and stipulates that estrangement means no communicative relationship with either living biological parent (2018), a definition also shared by the Student Loans Company (2016). It can be very difficult to ‘prove’ the status of estrangement under such restrictive conditions.
  • Definitions of estrangement shape the identities and realities of those who are formally associated with it and who can become, or fear becoming, victims of scrutinisation and unfair surveillance strategies, justified in the name of anti-fraud detection. Often monitoring approaches do not take into account the specificities, vulnerabilities or characteristics of estranged students (Bland, 2018).
  • Estrangement does not cease or become irrelevant when a student reaches the age of 25. Even when young people leave the family home it ‘continues to be the site through which many of their individual biographies and expectations are routed’ beyond the tidy age of 25 (Valentine et al, 2003: 481).  This signals the complexity in defining ‘youth’ and the significance of this (expanding) point in the life-course of an individual, especially when they may lack the social and economic support that they are assumed to receive via family.
  • Although well intentioned, supporting structures only cater partially for the needs of estranged students who are often considered from the perspective and experience of traditional students, with ‘add-on’ support recognising additional financial hardships. The intersection of financial, social and emotional needs still has to be taken into account.
  • There are enduring similarities in the experiences of estranged students, with many reporting, for example, experiences of homelessness, severe financial hardship, mental health issues, disrupted study, etc. Experiences of estrangement can lead to a strong sense of difference and exclusion within further and higher education contexts. As colleges and universities claim readiness to welcome a diverse student body, there is a need to acknowledge the complexity of students’ lives, encompassing an approach inclusive of those do not fit within a regular or expected pattern of what it means to be a student.
  • While there are group commonalities, little is known about the differences in estranged students’ experiences, in terms of such issues as race, class, gender and sexuality, a knowledge gap that requires research attention. Students’ struggles need to be accounted for intersectionally rather than through a tick box exercise of widening participation/diversity agendas to which institutions sign up. The Stand Alone Pledge has to be agreed, actively implemented and monitored.  
  • Inclusion of estranged students in academia does not stop at entry point; to measure entry as success would be to ignore the challenges students bring and carry with them throughout their studies, and indeed beyond. Positioning students as ‘non-traditional’ can encourage a deficit perspective (and labelling students as ‘disadvantaged’ may strengthen stereotypes rather than contest them). This ‘othering’ of students from non-traditional backgrounds may well foster a sense of difference, with institutional variations in student integration.
  • It is important to consider students’ own definitions, as well as resistances and personal strength evident in all interviews. Often students face isolation, uncertainty, financial instability and experience or fear of homelessness, and yet have still secured a place at college or university using whatever limited resources, personal and practical, they have to navigate barriers to their academic success.
  • Family estrangement is often regarded as a form of deviance and interference in relation to both unquestioned assumptions and the cultural imagination that ‘a family is forever’ (Sharp, 2017). This is problematic in that such an approach casts estrangement as an anomaly that requires fixing, whereas family estrangement is becoming a more prevalent reality in modern society (Conti, 2015). 

It [estrangement] seems negative that you’re either cut off or cut yourself off from your family, and normally that comes with the attachment of ‘what have they done wrong for that to happen?’ (Robert, 29)

[estrangement comes with] a degree of further responsibility and further pressures that not everybody has to experience.” (Dylan, 28)

So I think financially it is a big difference [from peers who are not estranged]. As well as like focusing on my studies I need to focus on an income.” (Ingrid, 22)

Maybe they [students who are not estranged] can have worries about other things, but they will never lack food, they will never have to worry about rent or stuff like this.” (Martin, 22)

See below link to the Estrangement Challenge Game developed from this research


Blake, L (2017) ‘Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: a review and discussion of the literature’ Journal of Family Theory & Review 9 (4): 521–36

Bland, B (2018) ‘It’s all about the money: the influence of family estrangement, accommodation struggles and homelessness on student success in UK higher education’ Text. July 2018.

Conti, RP (2015) ‘Family estrangement: establishing a prevalence rate’ Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science 3 (2): 28–35

Scharp, KM (2017) ‘‘‘You’re not welcome here”: a grounded theory of family distancing’ Communication Research, June

Taylor, Y (2018) ‘The strange experiences of ‘estranged’ students’ Discover Society (blog) 2018

Image: Postcard produced by research participant (see Taylor, 2018).

SRHE member Yvette Taylor is Professor of Education and Deputy Head of School (Research) in the School of Education at Strathclyde University.

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A work in progress: support for refugees on their way to German higher education

by Jana Berg

Before 2015 it can be assumed that (some) refugees had already been studying in Germany, but they were generally not addressed by specific offers. This changed after 2015, when the number of asylum applications peaked in Germany. Continue reading