Liam McCabe: Students locked down without family support need our attention

“The wellbeing and financial health of estranged students must be safeguarded by their institutions and the Scottish Government.”

SCOTTISH STUDENTS were already looking at a challenging year amid the Covid-19 crisis. With diminished opportunities for employment to supplement their student support payments, having to adapt to blended learning and much more besides, the 2020/21 academic session was always going to be an uphill struggle.

With the Covid-19 clusters identified in some halls of residence in Scotland, it seems the problems have just started. With hundreds of students confided in self-isolation, the importance of family could not be more acutely highlighted.

Students’ mental health will be under severe strain, due to the less than ideal living conditions that students often endure in their accommodation. Their rooms are often incredibly small, with insufficient or inconsistent heating and hot water, and sometimes mould. Spending 14 days in these circumstances, with maintenance staff less able to address such problems when they arise, will make it difficult for students to focus on their own wellbeing, never mind their studies.

Students might struggle to access food consistently during this period of isolation if their accommodation provider is not stepping in, or volunteers are not delivering necessary items. They may lose shifts at their workplace, losing out on vital income that augments their meagre student loan payments and gives them a chance of keeping up with the cost of living. In terms of accessing their studies, they may have completely lost access to the university IT in the library, computer labs and other such hubs, which many can often rely on in lieu of personal computers or laptops.

These problems are challenging for all students, but are particularly acute for those who are studying without the support of their family, who have become known as estranged students.

Many students in halls will have external family support systems to help them through these difficult times. They may have family who can bring them food and other necessities to ensure they don’t go without. They’ll have people who’re concerned about their wellbeing, checking in on them and providing moral support. They may have relatives who can support them financially if they lose income through lost work, and may even be able to support them in accessing the right IT, whether that is loaning them what they need if they can’t access university computers or support them if any technical issues arise, such as taking their laptop to get repaired when that unable to do so themselves..

Unfortunately, estranged students often do not have these same kind of support systems and that begs an important question; if there are no parents or close family to support them during times of crisis like this, who then is responsible for ensuring they do not fall through cracks and out of education all together?

The answer to that question is simple; the wellbeing and financial health of estranged students must be safeguarded by their institutions and the Scottish Government.

We would encourage institutions to remember that, while some students may take the option to trigger their notice period and return to their family homes for this semester or this academic year, given the disruption and the risks, estranged students cannot do the same. It would, in many cases, severely jeopardise their own wellbeing, mental health or even their safety. This much increases the level of responsibility institutions have to their estranged students, and others who find themselves similarly lacking in alternatives.

Moreover, while estranged students are incredibly resilient and resourceful, it is important to note that they have often learned to overcome adversity on their own. As a result, they may not come to their university or college for assistance as a priority. To ensure they know about the support that is available to them our institutions must be proactive in identifying their estranged students on campus, reaching out to them, understanding the challenges they face and organising the additional support they need.

To estranged students everywhere we encourage you to reach out to your institutions; as stated previously, they have a responsibility to support you at this time. Furthermore, reach out to your students’ association or student union, and let them know too. You are automatically a member of you your SA or SU, and letting them know what they can be doing to advocate for you as they campaign locally and nationally for students’ interests will ensure estranged students are on the minds of those representatives wherever they are fighting for students.

We hope that all parties keep students who have little family support in mind as people everywhere turn to their communities and wonder what they can do to show solidarity with those around them. Last but not least, it’s imperative that Scottish Government fund universities to deliver the support that these students will need to see them through their self-isolation, because this isn’t a problem that universities, students or communities should be expected to solve alone.

Liam McCabe is Stand Alone‘s Policy Officer in Scotland, working with institutions, student representatives, stakeholders and the Scottish Government to raise the profile of estranged students in tertiary education and find solutions to the challenges they face.