Unite Foundation

Study from home? What if you don’t have a home?

This blog, by our Director Eluned Parrott,  first appeared on HEPI on 17th March 2020. 

As the sector responds to the spread of Covid-19, the question of whether our thought processes are entirely inclusive once again springs to mind.

Working with care-leavers and estranged students through our scholarship programme, I have been concerned to see commentators suggesting that our universities should be closed, without proper consideration for those people who cannot just go home if everything shuts. For our scholars and many more like them, their university is their home. There is no warm welcome, no safe haven and no stability if that is taken away.

Estranged students are among the most vulnerable to any potential closure of halls of residence, with one in six registering as homeless or considering doing so during their studies. The Positive Impact? study commissioned from Sheffield Hallam University by the Unite Foundation found that even in normal times, lone students often struggle to find suitable and affordable accommodation outside of term time.

The qualitative part of the study recorded experiences such as sofa-surfing and deferring study due to housing issues. The troubling conclusion was:

For these students, their university experiences were marked by threats, or fears of, homelessness which, in turn, had an impact on their mental health as well as their financial stability.

In reality, many students who are care-experienced or estranged from their families rely on the good will of friends and their friends’ families to give them a place to go outside of term time. However, this option is fraught with danger, putting vulnerable young people in a position of dependency on others, even assuming that during a pandemic those friends will be able to open their homes as freely as they might otherwise.

So the practical impact of homelessness is the dominant concern for many, but the emotional challenges of finding yourself isolated and alone in an empty hall of residence also needs to be considered.

Time to talk to the student body

What does the sector need to do? Well firstly, universities need to make sure we have a proactive plan for what to do if a hall of residence – or all of them – need to be closed for any reason. The first step is to find out who might need extra support.

Do universities know how many students could not go home to their parents or another safe and appropriate place? Probably not. We cannot assume that we know who all of our lone students are: many do not identify themselves as care-experienced or estranged on application forms because they fear discrimination and some young people become estranged from their family after they arrive at university. Even if they have discussed their status with a tutor, we cannot assume that information has been shared with student services. Universities are going to have to ask.

Secondly, universities and charities such as the Unite Foundation need to be actively engaging with our students to make sure that their views are taken into account and to keep them informed about decisions that are being taken for their wellbeing. That should count twice over for those who do not have a safe and appropriate Plan B to turn to for whatever reason. Those lone students may well be feeling incredibly anxious and have less in the way of trusted advice, so it is vital that they know we have remembered them. That communication should run both ways, particularly because relatively few of the staff planning for this crisis response will have lived experience that is similar to theirs. If in doubt, ask.

The meek shall inherit the earth – but we are not all introverts

Thirdly, we need to consider the mental wellbeing of young people left behind if most of the student body has left the university campus. While it might be said that the meek shall inherit the earth, even the most introverted of us would probably find weeks without human interaction difficult. It can be frightening, lonely and bleak to be almost completely alone in a normally busy place, so we need to make sure that some services are open and that there are regular lines of communication. Social networking can prevent loneliness and isolation.

  • Can our Students’ Unions encourage virtual social events and hang-outs?
  • Can student services departments be proactive in phoning around those students who are still on campus to check how they are getting along?
  • What else can we do collaboratively to make sure that no student is left feeling isolated or forgotten?

I’m not a medical expert so I cannot advise universities on how best to meet the current crisis. It is a deeply worrying time for all concerned. My call is simply this: remember that not everyone has a safe home to go to.

Our aim in all of this should be to make sure that we’re giving all of our students the information they need to feel safe and supported during this very anxious time. The sector has been measured and cautious in its approach to Covid-19 and not jumping into mass closures (so far) without the medical advice to do so. With very diverse populations drawn from across the globe, the UK’s higher education sector has got far more experience of working across cultural divides than many other public services and that could be a huge advantage.

Now is the time to use that experience to offer the nuanced support that our many student populations need. But first, let’s have a conversation to ask the students themselves what that should look like. We are in this together and we can get through it together.