Oxford University has pledged to provide bursaries, accommodation, and unlimited counselling to students who are estranged from their families, following a campaign by the Oxford SU.
As part of the Stand Alone pledge, Oxford will offer bursaries of up to £7,200 a year to help estranged students meet the costs of living and will lift all caps on counselling services. The University also pledged to provide them with vacation accommodation and, where possible, to house them with other students to minimise isolation.
Only students who are registered as estranged with the Student Loans Company (SLC) will qualify for the full bursary. According to the SU, 17 students at Oxford are recorded as ‘legally estranged’ by the SLC, although they estimate the figure could be as many as 200 based on comparisons with other similar institutions.
The reliance of current schemes on SLC registration was previously criticised by the SU due to difficulties involved in providing adequate proof of estrangement. The SU also pointed out that a student cannot declare their estranged status on platforms such as Ucas.
Those who are determined by the University to be estranged, but who are not registered with the SLC, can apply for a living cost supplement of up to £3,000 a year.
One estranged student told Cherwell: “If they’re taking such a narrow definition of estrangement I can’t really see it being an effective policy. By giving those who don’t fit in the definition significantly less funding than those who do, they might actually increase the stigma around asking for help. It makes it seem like if you don’t tick a certain box, your problems matter less.
“Setting a minimum household income level seems a bit counter-productive, and doesn’t help estranged students whose family are outright refusing to give financial support.”
Students with a household income of over £27,000 a year will also be restricted to the reduced supplement, despite not receiving any parental financial support.
The SU welfare and equal opportunities officer Ellie Macdonald described the announcement as “fantastic”, saying:
“In the summer Oxford SU undertook a research project to understand what issues estranged students faced at the University of Oxford. We were overwhelmed by the response of students who for the first the time shone a light onto their university experiences here.
“This report produced recommendations that we will be working with the collegiate university to meet in the next two years.”
In its earlier report, the SU had heavily criticised existing financial support for its reliance on the SLC definition, which requires that the individual not to have had contact with their parents for twelve months prior to the start of their course.
The same report noted that many students do not cut off contact with their family until they are already at university, rendering them illegible for official estranged status.
One student interviewed described being forced to maintain contact with an abusive family out of concern that they would not qualify as legally estranged if they cut off contact whilst already at university.
The SU report stated: “All of the participants who answered the question ‘If you are not financially and/or physically estranged from your parents, is that because it would be dangerous to be in that position either emotionally and/or financially?’ answered yes, with different reasons ranging from fear of physical violence, to emotional abuse.
“Many estranged students have not told their parents of their estrangement and will just be living apart from them with no contact. Because of the (potentially) extreme repercussions, it is clear that many students are not able to declare themselves estranged and gain help from student finances.”
According to Stand Alone, finding the proof required to fit the legal definition of estrangement is the most common complaint for estranged students trying to access finance. The SU estimated that the SLC definition underestimates the extent of estrangement at Oxford by a factor of 12 to 1.
Oxford and Cambridge are the eighth and ninth Russell Group universities to take the pledge. The Vice-Chancellor has invited estranged students to tea, “to discuss their experiences of estrangement and how the university can help them further.”