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We spoke to estranged students about Facebook monitoring by the student loan company

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Evidence sent to TNS shows that the Student Loans Company trawled through Facebook to find communication between estranged students and their parents. 

In February 2018, the government-owned Student Loans Company (SLC) opened an anti-fraud inquiry into the cases of 150 estranged students, they were randomly selected. 

Students who were no longer in contact with their parents were informed of the inquiry by post, which was allegedly sent to their home address rather than their term-time address. They were given a 28-day limit in which to send evidence supporting their estranged status. 

Stand Alone, a charity that supports estranged people, is currently working with students who have been targeted by the investigation.

They have called for the loans company to review their anti-fraud system after they were sent mixed messages about loan suspensions.

The charity is asking for the company to reinstate funding for students whose instalments are being withheld without any proof of fraud.

A letter sent to TNS affirms allegations of social media snooping. As part of the anti-fraud investigations, the Facebook accounts of estranged students were monitored and trawled through. 

Part of the letter to estranged student Rita* reads:

You had applied for Student Finance on the basis that you where estranged, however, we have found evidence on Facebook of conversations between you and your mum in October 2017.

You had also provided bank statements... and your mother transferred an amount of £70.00 with the reference “Christmas.” 

We do believe you were estranged at one point but now have some sort of relationship with your mum. As a result of this, a decision has been made that your application for 2017/18 onwards will be reassessed to non-means tested until your mum provides her financial evidence to support your means-tested claim.”

Student loans and grants are awarded based on parent income. The SLC assume that because Rita is allegedly in touch with her mother again, then her mother will financially support Rita - unless the mother earns under a certain income band. 

The loans company fails to understand the complicated relationship between estranged families - their response wrongly assumes that financial support will be available if contact is made. 

Estranged graduate Amie Key, now preparing to embark on a PhD to explore estranged students in higher education, called the SLC's Facebook loitering 'ridiculous.'

'In many circumstances, estranged students may not be able to remove their family members from social media accounts, or post things about their lack of family contact to protect their safety.'

'A public body spying on a vulnerable individual in order to deem whether they are worthy of financial support to get an education is an absolutely ridiculous concept and is not acceptable.'

Speaking to TNS, Becca Bland, CEO of Stand Alone said that a 'family relationship cannot be determined by actions on social media.'

Becca described the possible need for estranged persons to maintain Facebook friendships for the sake of other family members, such as younger siblings, who they feel should have some sense of contact.

'It prevents students, in a way, from having a sense of openness and ease in maintaining sibling relationships,' explained Becca.

“I think that to be able to say that you have a dependent family relationship just because of an interaction on social media, is not reflective of how family relationships work and are.'

Estranged first-year student, Cereza Palmer, contemplated dropping out of university because her loans were withdrawn.

'Trying to get into university is hard enough without the main funding body, who control your future and education, attempting to tell you that you're lying.

'I probably would have dropped out of university and my housing situation would have rendered me on the streets.'

Second-year student, Brogen Harrison, who also keeps a bloglikened SLC's movement to that of controlling parents:

'The thought of being watched and monitored is frightening, not because I have anything to hide, but because I have lived a life where I was controlled and monitored by my parents. I chose estrangement to free myself from such a life.

It is impossible to summarise how excruciatingly painful and distressing the process of obtaining the relevant evidence was for me both physically and mentally. The thought of having to prove yourself when you have spent your whole life proving yourself is exhausting' described Brogen.

*Names have been changed for anonymity 

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