I began my university life in 2016 as a parent to a three month old baby, entering into undergraduate study after completing a year with the Open University.
That transition – from both distance learning to full time study, and young woman to mother – brought with it a whole host of obstacles, issues and inequalities.
As a student, it was difficult to balance a work/study/home life – and to compound this, the structure of higher education is not overly accommodating to non-traditional students.
The lack of accommodation is strange given that in many widening participation universities these students make up a significant minority – at Christ Church, data collected by the students’ union suggests that 25% of students have caring responsibilities.
But in the wider sector, we’re still working off estimates. Providers are not required to collect the data, so no one actually knows how many students have dependents. No wonder that the unique and complex needs of this population are not addressed by universities or their students’ unions – they don’t know what this group is facing or needs, don’t know how many of this group is struggling, and don’t know how to respond.
Of course, the disparity between “traditional” students (18 year olds, first time away from home) and student parents (over 21 with responsibilities of homes/jobs and children) crosses many areas of education – attainment, retention, student experience, financial stability and inclusion. There is much discussion in the sector about the reasons for the drop off in access from mature students in the past decade – but not so much discussion about participation and success.
In our own analysis at Canterbury Christ Church, students commencing under 21 on first degrees were more likely to gain a 1st / 2i than older starters. This was not explained by faculty choice. Older students (21 and over at start) were also more likely to withdraw in their first year”. Nationally, the attainment gap hovers at around 10 percentage points.
Need to know
The reasons behind this are incredibly nuanced and an interesting area of enquiry – if only someone would research it! In the last year, a key part of my agenda as a student leader with a child has been to discover why student parents are not listened to and responded to, so I could give them a voice.
Finding ways to meaningfully engage is crucial. Gone are the days of being able to head to the bar after a 5pm lecture for a few drinks – sorry, I have to rush to nursery to collect my child before I get charged for an extra hour (that I can’t afford in the first place), cook dinner and study late into the night just to make sure I’m reaching the same level as my peers.
Student parents are time poor – and they are often financially poor also due to the extortionate cost of childcare, with very little in the way of support and this all affects their overall experience of being at university.
Student Finance England provides a Childcare Grant for all undergraduates who satisfy the criteria (full time study and not eligible for the Government childcare element). This can cover up to 85% of childcare costs which, in my experience in the South East, equates to roughly £850 for one child to attend full time nursery (outside of the city centre).
This is helpful, but the scheme only applies to undergraduates and there is no parent specific postgraduate support at all. This, combined with the pressure of running a home and often not having the support of parents or caregivers, means student parents also work part time alongside their studies. This leaves little for extracurricular activities that don’t have a direct impact on academic achievement or future career. In a wider context, it also creates a lack of female voices in postgraduate education as the majority of people with caring responsibilities are women.
What little data we do have on nationwide statistics – mainly drawn from a ten-year-old paper written by NUS – suggests that 60% of student parents have already considered leaving their courses, rising steeply to 65% for lone parents. Our own research at Canterbury Christ Church confirms this – financial issues, time poverty and the lack of suitable space and equipment to study effectively at home (which may be even more of an issue during the Covid-19 pandemic) are all issues.
University organisation and management often places additional pressure on student parents, with timetables rarely taking into account childcare needs and attendance policies offering little flexibility if, for example, your child is ill. All these barriers and challenges mean student parents may be more likely to drop out of university or attain lower grades than “traditional” students – but we don’t know for sure, as nobody is required to collect the data.
Don’t you forget about me
Student parents are the forgotten group. We come into education with the hope of achieving the same as everyone else around us, but the challenges of our circumstances mean we often feel we have to work three times harder to stay on the same level. And this is without even considering systemic issues around childcare at universities or the funding disparity between undergraduate and postgraduate students.
As we enter a September where timetable flexibility (both for universities and students) is likely to be in even shorter supply than usual, I’d like to urge all higher education institutions to commit to collecting and evaluating data on their student parents. Nationally, HESA should also consider the data it collects so we can get an accurate picture of student parents across the UK. Students’ unions also need to take stock: how many student parents are engaged in our activities? Do we know, and are we working to increase this? Only by doing this can we hope to respond effectively and support student parents efficiently.
What can SUs do? Officers and staff within students’ unions have a duty to listen, understand and respond on behalf of all student parents. The first thing to remember is that the way of engaging this group will differ from more traditional students – this means we have to adapt our ways of communication to reach them. Thinking about the messages we send, the images used, are they always of young people at the union bar? Perhaps we could consider the representation we have and utilise the part time officers we have available. Our engagement of student parents increased dramatically when I took up office – partly my daughter played a role in my campaign to showcase the diversity of our university.
There are also simple questions to ask our institutions. What changing and breastfeeding facilities are available? What policies are in place to safeguard our student parents within the classrooms? What is their child-on-campus stance?
Progress is possible
It is possible to make a difference. At Christ Church, our satellite campus was the first to truly tackle the problem and by October we established two new changing areas and an exclusive breastfeeding facility for all post partum parents visiting the campus. This not only had a physical outcome but it also enabled conversations across the university which challenged the way children and student parents were welcomed.
Subsequently our library implemented a scheme which now helps parents who need to visit by providing a special pass for children, and a separate room for them to engage with the campus and resources. As a mother to a toddler, I can attest to the impact that being able to come to the university can have on a child and your studies. As a sabbatical officer I can also attest to the need across our whole population. It’s no longer just my lived experience – it is empirical evidence that can no longer be overlooked.
For all of the reasons stated above, our student parents are more vulnerable than ever given the global pandemic. Now is the time to act on their behalf and galvanise them as an invisible group. As members of the student movement, we must hear what students are saying and respond.
This means asking the awkward questions. It means challenging every area of policy and governance that may be a barrier for student parents and non-traditional students. Even if we haven’t experienced this ourselves, a significant minority of our students have and will continue to – and they all deserve a voice.
If anyone would like a copy of the paper presented to our institution calling for changes in all of these areas and beyond, including a childcare facility, or would like to discuss how they can make changes to engage student parents, please do get in touch by email or on Twitter