Reflections on the language around estrangement 

The language we use is important if we want to reach the individuals for whom we know there are inequalities in Higher Education (HE). 

This was one of the key takeaways from the student panel at the recent Estranged Students CPD Conference. Organised by Southern Universities Network (SUN) in collaboration with national estrangement charity Stand Alone and the Uni Connect Estranged Students Partnership, the event looked at the support that is available for young people who are studying without the support and approval of a family network. 

The need for language to be inclusive is not new but the panel offered a timely reminder about the importance of considering the intended audience when producing resources. The young people on the panel spoke eloquently about their educational experiences and the support that had helped them to succeed on their HE journeys. They also highlighted the gaps they still had to overcome, particularly around the lack of awareness about estrangement among teachers and staff in HE settings. 

This is an area that we at Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY) seek to address.  

We have developed the country’s very first collaborative Stand Alone Pledge, which we spoke about at the conference as an example of good practice. The resource raises awareness of the support available across our 13 member institutions including whether they have named contacts, dedicated webpages, and additional financial support. We have also piloted an e-learning programme. Understanding and Supporting Care Experienced and Estranged Students aims to improve understanding of the experiences of  for these students among HE staff.  

Other presenters also discussed the support that is available to estranged students in HE. Susan Mueller (Stand Alone) gave an overview of estrangement; Nicola Turner (UCAS) delivered a summary of the new UCAS tick box for estranged students; and Kevin McMullan (Student Finance England) discussed details around the application process for estranged students, and how practitioners can support with this process.

Yet unless we use the language that estranged people recognise, we are going to be limiting the potential impact of our resources and the support that is available to them. 

The panel advised attendees that they preferred the term ‘independent student’ rather than ‘estranged student’. They struggled to self-identify with the latter term when they initially became estranged from their family, and many of those around them – including teachers – were unfamiliar with the term. This led to delays in them accessing the support that was available. 

Crucially, they regard the term ‘independent student’ as being more empowering and positive than ‘estranged’. This is something we need to consider in the future and incorporate wherever possible. It will still be necessary to use the term ‘estranged’, as it is the one used by UCAS and other key organisations, but it should be used alongside ‘independent student’ if we want the voices of individuals in this group to be heard.  

Watch the SUN conference presentations. 


Susan Darlington, GHWY Partnership Assistant