The Family Matters report draws on online responses from over 1,700 students from both Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield and reveals the critical influence families have on a student’s experience of higher education, through either their presence or absence.
“Family members don’t just offer practical or financial help, they can also provide high levels of emotional support,” said Professor Jacqueline Stevenson from the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University.
“University students without close family are more likely to worry about their futures, feel stressed and anxious, or lonely. This can lead to them dropping out of their studies,” she added.
The majority of students noted the importance of getting emotional support from their families at times of stress, such as during exams, for encouragement or during the first months of term. 34% of students reported physical interactions with at least one family member every day, and more than half (51%) spoke to a family member over the phone, via text, email or through social media on a daily basis.
Students also noted how material and financial support from family members acted as a type of safety net, when other finances fell through.
In terms of students with a distant relationship with their families, 8% communicated with those they considered to be family only once per term or less; 4% felt the contact they had with family to be negative; and 1% considered that their friends were their only family.
When students voluntarily made the choice to create distance from their families, some believed the separation was beneficial to aid academic focus and maximise their chances of success. This was particularly the case for some of the international students.
For estranged students, or others with distant relationships to family, a lack of access to financial or emotional support meant that they lacked the ability to overcome academic, personal or financial challenges. This led to personal stress, and triggered feelings of academic frustration when the support was needed to assist with course costs. Students also mentioned they lacked support in mental health crisis moments, and experienced loneliness and isolation due to lack of support from their families.
“There are some inexplicit expectations in the HE sector for students to rely on family, whether that be material or financial support or emotional support, which this report finds is crucial to student success. Universities must do more to recognise the support needs of those who have distant family relationships or who are estranged from their families to support their mental health and wellbeing, provide practical help, and help them stay on course,” said Becca Bland, Chief Executive of Stand Alone Charity.
Sheffield Hallam University’s research is characterised by a focus on real world impact – addressing the cultural, economic and social challenges facing society today. The findings suggest the need for universities to recognise the emotional buffer that family provides and the implications of this for the academic success of those students who do not share this same advantages. By creating stronger policies around family disadvantage, students who lack family support can be endowed with the greatest chance of student success. Family really does matter.