Recording and recognising the experiences of estranged students in higher education: a participatory research project using photo-elicitation

Rachel Spacey

The aim of this project is to record and recognise the experiences of estranged students (independent or irreconcilabily estranged from their parents) at university. In order to achieve this aim the project will recruit a small group of estranged students at the University of Lincoln who will be asked to take photos which they perceive represent their experience before, during and after a university vacation. The participants will share their images in a workshop facilitated by the researcher. Selected images and key messages from the students will be shared, with their permission, at a workshop with staff. Data from both workshops will be analysed and written up into an institutional report with a view to enhancing and improving the support available to estranged students. The students will also participate in a social media campaign on Twitter where the researcher will share selected images to promote awareness of the issues facing estranged students.
Over the past two decades there has been a plethora of research studies in higher education (HE) focusing on specific groups or cohorts of students, including, but not confined to commuter students (Southall et al., 2016), first-generation or first in family students (Terenzini et al., 1996), Black and Minority Ethnic students (Singh, 2009), mature students (Bowl, 2001) and students from working class backgrounds (Reay et al., 2002; Leathwood and O’Connell, 2003) amongst others. However, there is little research exploring the experiences of students who are estranged from their families. Estranged students have “No communicative relationship with either of their living biological parents and often their wider family networks as well” (OFFA, 2017). The situation of estranged students in HE has been highlighted by the charity Stand Alone which supports adults who have become estranged from their family. Stand Alone and the Unite Foundation undertook research into the experiences of estranged students using survey data. Their report New Starts (Bland & Shaw, 2015) found that finance and accommodation were key in influencing the experience of estranged students since they have to house themselves during the vacations as well as during term time without the support of a family network. New Starts also highlighted the lack of qualitative research which has been undertaken with estranged students to understand their experiences of HE. They suggest that one of the biggest barriers estranged students face is a lack of understanding around family estrangement such that it is regarded as taboo: “Stand Alone has found that societal knowledge and awareness regarding family estrangement and disownment is currently low but, conversely, stigma is high” (p.24). It is estimated that there are approximately 70 estranged students at the University of Lincoln according to data from 2015 (Stand Alone, 2017). Indeed, estranged students are more likely to attend recruiting universities like the University of Lincoln (UoL). While financial support structures for estranged students within HE have improved in recent years such as work with the Student Loans Company to help these students’ access loans and the availability of individual institutional hardship funds, for example, those administered by the Student Funding Team at the UoL, there is still a dearth of research capturing the experiences of estranged students whilst at university. This project aims to address this gap with a qualitative study of estranged students at the UoL. It also intends to raise awareness of the existence and issues facing estranged students at university. A small group of estranged students (between 6 and 10) will be recruited to the project. They will be briefed at an introductory workshop where they will receive a £10 Amazon e-voucher for attending. Their brief will be to take a series of images before, during and after the Christmas vacation. This period of time is significant since it is assumed most students will return home and spend time with their families over the vacation. The images will be shared in a participatory workshop and research questions will explore perceptions of support, belonging and home; three key issues highlighted in research (Bland & Shaw, 2015). The session will be audio-recorded and transcribed for data analysis. The students will receive a further £20 Amazon e-voucher for attending this workshop. A summary of the findings will be shared at a workshop with staff. The images taken by the students will, with their permission, be shown to staff to help stimulate discussion. A semi-structured workshop guide will be used with a view to raising awareness and sharing of good practice within the university and the findings will be included in a summative report which will be shared with the staff attendees, student participants and with key personnel responsible for the student experience at the UoL.
This qualitative research adopts a participatory approach which aims to involve the student participants throughout the project. It is hoped that this method will be of benefit to estranged students at the University of Lincoln more widely and the individual students involved. It will use the visual method of photo-elicitation as the basis for a focus group interview with the participants. Photo-elicitation is frequently used in sociological studies and is considered a useful approach to engage vulnerable groups or marginalised communities (Mannay, 2013). The students will be asked to take a series of images during a specified time frame and asked to share them with the other participants and the researcher in a facilitated workshop or focus group session to explore issues of relevance to the participants. The students’ comments about, and reactions to, these images will be audio-recorded with their consent. The audio-recording will be transcribed and uploaded into the qualitative software analysis tool, NVivo to facilitate thematic analysis. The students will also be asked to contribute their images and quotes for the researcher to share at the workshop with staff. The students will also be given the opportunity to comment on the draft summative report which will be shared institutionally. Finally the researcher will facilitate a week long social media campaign on Twitter to highlight the research and its findings, again using images and quotes from the students with their permission and input.