The Sheffield students who didn't go home for Christmas

‘Boris was pledging to get everyone back to their families, but I had nowhere else to go’

By Alex Forbes

In September 2020, Boris Johnson praised students across the country who were struggling through the pandemic from their university accommodation and announced a national effort to get them home for Christmas.

But for a small group of students, that message rang hollow — ones for whom university is home. I’m talking about the hundreds of students in Sheffield, and the thousands nationwide, who are estranged from their families. These young people have usually left abusive homes, or have been rejected by their parents because of their sexuality or gender identification. They have little or no contact with their families and receive no financial, practical or emotional support at all. There are currently 279 estranged students in Sheffield: 67 at the University of Sheffield and 212 at Sheffield Hallam.

“Christmas has always been hard for me, but during the pandemic it was just awful,” says John, who is a student at the University of Sheffield. “Boris was pledging to get everyone back to their families, but I had nowhere else to go.” The fact that students get support from their parents is taken for granted by society — and by universities: financial support is only provided in term time, accommodation contracts rarely last all year round and during the summer months student support staff take annual leave.

John (not his real name) became estranged while at college. He didn’t wish to discuss the background to his estrangement in detail, beyond saying that his family situation had become very unpleasant. “I’d felt for a while that I didn’t want to be in that environment anymore,” he told us. “So when things came to a head with my parents, I decided to leave.” He prepared for his A-levels from temporary accommodation, before finally moving into a council flat. Despite all of this, John achieved a place at one of the best universities in the North. 

When term started, he left his council flat for good and travelled by public transport to Sheffield, lugging suitcases full of belongings behind him. After moving into his dorm in Endcliffe Village, he watched his fellow flatmates arrive, excitedly unpacking their possessions with the help of their families before waving off their beaming parents. “I quickly realised that my university experience was going to be very different from everyone else’s,” he recalls. “For other students, it was their first time having independence and living away from their family, but I’d been doing it for almost two years.”

It was in those years that John taught himself how to live independently. With no parents around to ask for help and advice, his only source of information was the internet. When he got to university, he was surprised by how many of his fellow students couldn’t do basic things, like working an oven or a washing machine. And if they couldn’t do something, they would just call up their parents and ask for help.

During freshers week, John’s new flatmates would spend their nights in The Foundry (the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union) and the bars and nightclubs on West Street. Unable to afford those nights out, he spent most of his evenings alone in his bedroom.

“Everyone was really excited to party and go out drinking every night — which is great — but it just wasn’t something I could be part of,” he says. “I needed to pay for rent and essential supplies all year round, and if I blew all my money in nightclubs, I wouldn’t be able to do that. It might not seem that significant, but it’s such a big aspect of the student experience, and it’s difficult when you completely miss out on it.”

John also found it difficult to prove to the Student Loans Company that he was deserving of support. He has to demonstrate that he is “irreconcilably estranged” from his family, but says putting together all the evidence can be “a bit of an ordeal”. This is not an uncommon experience for estranged students. A Guardian investigation from 2018 found that student finance, as part of an anti-fraud drive, had withdrawn funding from 81 out of 150 estranged students, and that the company had been “spying on the social media accounts of vulnerable students”.

Student finance regulations define estrangement as having no written or verbal contact with their family for at least 12 months. But even if John made very minimal contact with his family — for example wishing his younger sibling a happy birthday — it could mean having his funding withdrawn. Susan Mueller from Stand Alone, a charity which deals with family estrangement, says student finance doesn’t take into account the fact that some estranged students may have very sporadic contact with a parent. In some cases, this is initiated by the parent and can be abusive.

John is about to start his second year in Sheffield. “My biggest worry is always getting my accommodation sorted,” he told me. “When you’re estranged, you’re always thinking about where you’re going to live next. Like on results day, everyone else is worrying about what they’ll do if they fail, but my main concern is ‘where will I live if I get kicked out of uni?’”

Mueller said that many universities, including Hallam, had observed an increase in the number of estranged students becoming homeless during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is in part due to the rise in family relationships falling apart during the national lockdowns. “Many students will have been forced to go back home, and they’re stuck in a really difficult family situation,” she says. “These are often very abusive environments, physically, mentally, and sexually. They either get thrown out by their parents and end up on the streets, or they themselves have to make the decision ‘can I live in this situation, or am I better off finding somewhere else?’”

Kathryn Axon, senior student support officer at the University of Sheffield, told The Tribune what emergency funding the university had provided for its estranged students. She said: 

All students were eligible to apply for the covid support fund to ensure no student went short during the pandemic. This fund is £3 million and has covered a range of living expenses and technology needs. All non-traditional students from a care leaver/estranged background were contacted throughout the pandemic to ensure their needs were met. Furthermore, at Christmas 2020, all estranged and care leaver students received a Christmas hamper (£50), £100 Tesco vouchers and £20 university vouchers.

Mueller says there have been improvements, and that she is confident that the experience of an estranged student at university today is considerably better than it would have been five or six years ago. But she wants all university staff — from student support, councillors and wellbeing staff all the way to teachers and lecturers, finance departments and accommodation providers — to learn what estrangement actually is and what it means for the young people involved.

Everyone I spoke to for this story told me that the issue of student estrangement is not sufficiently understood in society. “I think that a lot of people in my situation don’t even know the word ‘estranged’, and don’t realise that there are systems in place designed specifically to support people like them,” says John. “So, officially, there are around 8,500 estranged students in the UK, but I think the figure is actually far higher than that, because a lot of estranged people are completely off the radar.”