More than 8,000 university students in the UK are estranged from their families, with no relationship with their parents, new figures show.
They often experience severe financial difficulties, loneliness and even homelessness during the holidays.
“I just ended up couch surfing, just trying to survive, just trying to find the money to eat,” says Cereza, a student at Queen Mary University of London, recalling how she stayed at eight different friends’ houses during one summer holiday.
Cereza describes her childhood as very difficult. Leaving for university, she says, was the “final thing that tore my family apart” and meant she had no home to return to.
At the end of the academic year, she says she had to move her belongings alone, using a shopping trolley.
“It’s one of the moments that really reminds you you’re not a normal student any more. You don’t have a family to help you, and you just have to survive it out on your own.”
A Freedom of Information request to the Student Loans Company found 7,566 students in England, 341 in Wales and 121 in Northern Ireland are classed as estranged this academic year. The Student Awards Agency for Scotland said it had 145 such students.
The reasons are often very complicated – with abusive families, clashes of values, and teenagers not being accepted for their sexuality among the most common.
Research by the Stand Alone charity, which supports estranged adults, suggests such students are three times as likely to drop out. It says around 30% have faced homelessness.
It wants to work with universities to put in place policies, such as offering year-round accommodation and wellbeing support services, as more students experience family trauma.
The charity’s founder, Becca Bland, suggests the introduction of a “specific bursary for estranged students”, which universities often have for those who have been in care.
Liverpool John Moores University, which has around 50 estranged students, has already introduced some improvements.
It is ensuring such individuals do not have to find a deposit or guarantor for accommodation – often a barrier to them finding somewhere to live.
Student support co-ordinator Philip Bakstad said: “There’s that safety net there so that in any eventualities where students would normally fall back on the bank of mum and dad, we’ve got additional financial support there for them.”
The amount of financial support these students are entitled to varies across the UK.
In England those studying outside London can receive a maintenance loan of almost £9,000 a year. Scottish students are entitled to a bursary of £1,000 and a maximum maintenance loan of £6,750.
Welsh students are entitled to a Welsh Government Learning Grant of £8,100 and a maintenance loan of £1,125. And in Northern Ireland they may get a grant of up to £3,475 and a maximum maintenance loan of £4,840.
In order to get full funding, estranged students must prove they have not had contact with their parents for around a year and that the estrangement is “irrevocable”.
Third-year student Connor, who was 13 when he was moved from his family home, says it can be difficult to prove eligibility.
“It’s so much easier to be recognised on a system if you’ve been through an institution of care than if you’re estranged,” he says.
“People can be in those circumstances and have no-one know [about it]. I wasn’t put through any official service. There were very few files kept. The government doesn’t really know that I’m estranged.”
‘Take more seriously’
Labour MP Ian Mearns says the government is “oblivious” to the problem because it does not collect the data.
“The government could be encouraging universities to take this whole issue much more seriously, in terms of the support they can give to their students,” he says.
He says he would call for an inquiry into estranged students, and believes the education select committee in this new Parliament must gather evidence and make recommendations to help.
The Department for Education said in a statement: “No student should feel cut off from the support they need in higher education and universities must make sure all students have access to adequate support services, including estranged students.
“We set up the Office for Students to hold institutions to account, and where it finds universities have breached rules protecting the best interests of students, it has a range of strong powers to take action, including financial penalties.”
The Student Loans Company told the BBC it was always seeking to improve the support provided to estranged students.
“Students estranged from their families can now access a dedicated team who process all applications,” it said.
Next year, applicants on Ucas forms will also be able to self-declare their estrangement, which would alert universities to their situation.
Queen Mary University of London, where Cereza studies, says it takes student welfare “extremely seriously”, supporting estranged students in finding appropriate housing, both within and outside term.
A spokesman said: “We prioritise campus accommodation for estranged students in their first year of study and we provide accommodation for returning estranged students subject to availability. We also offer… support to access funding to pay for housing.”
But Cereza says the university wasn’t “particularly interested in helping me find [out of term-time] accommodation” and says they must do more.
“I am trying to do everything in my power to make this university experience the best I can,” she says.