The start of the 2023-24 academic year will mark a watershed moment. Thanks to the new tick-box question on UCAS forms, institutions will be starting the year armed with hard data on which of their incoming students have parental responsibility.
But why does this matter – and how can we use the data?
The invisible cohort
Nobody knows how many student parents are currently in UK higher education because this data has never been collected in any organised way.
Unlike many cohorts attending university under the widening participation agenda, student parents are not considered by the Office for Students to be a standalone underrepresented group and as such, they have never been required to feature in institutional access and participation plans. None of the 12 risk factors identified in the new OfS guidance on access and participation recognise parental responsibility in itself as a potential barrier to university success.
This is a missed opportunity, not least because carers (about whom, in common with student parents, data had not been collected until the advent of their own new question in the 2023-entry UCAS forms) do feature in this list.
So institutions are “metrically incentivised” to provide appropriate interventions to facilitate the retention, progression, and success of one (very deserving) group with loved ones relying upon them for their time, care and attention – but not another.
A golden opportunity
For the past few years, I have led several small-scale research projects aimed at investigating the needs of undergraduate student parents and testing the viability of interventions designed to address these needs.
It is clear from this research that student parents face a myriad of challenges on their way through their higher education journey, and it is beholden on institutions to provide the help they need to successfully navigate this journey.
It stands to reason that student parents cannot be supported if they cannot be identified. And this is why the 2023 UCAS data matters. This will provide the first quantification of student parents (at least, those who wish to identify themselves pre-enrolment) and will afford institutions a golden opportunity to provide targeted support and track the impact of this in a deliberate and meaningful way.
The research I have undertaken with student parents shows that they need two things from their provider – flexibility (in terms of time and space) and a feeling of belonging (achieved by showing understanding, providing support, and offering reassurance and connection).
This research culminated in the publication of a practical yet research-informed toolkit: Eight steps to identifying, supporting and celebrating student parents. The toolkit offers providers some quick and easy wins – as well as some food for thought on potential changes requiring a bit more consideration and institutional discussion.
Quick wins for summer
For readers interested in how they might make immediate changes over the summer months, there are some ideas below, based on the recommendations in the toolkit.
First and foremost, does your institution plan to use the UCAS data to allocate student parents, in groups, to dedicated personal tutors, and are your personal tutors aware of the support that their student parents need?
I am currently running an ethically-approved survey of current and recently graduated (within the last three years) student parents, the data from which will inform a Personal Tutor Guide to Supporting student parents (to be hosted on the UKAT resources site and linked from UCAS’ HE Provider Good Practice Briefing page) and a Student Parent Guide to Transitioning to University (hosted on UCAS’ Students with Parenting responsibilities page). If any readers feel able to reach out to their students to advertise the opportunity for student parents to contribute to these guides, the link to the survey is here, open until 7 July.
Another simple yet effective task for the summer might include preparing a dedicated group induction session providing student parents the opportunity to share their background and apprehensions and to be introduced at an early stage to your exceptional circumstances policy (and its evidence requirements).
Establishing an online peer support group for student parents – operating within academic departments and moderated by a departmental student parent “champion” – has proven to be a highly effective method of instilling a sense of community amongst student parents, in addition to an institutional student-parent support group facilitated by your central student services team. You might also enlist current student parents to buddy with incoming student parents to assist their transition.
Student parents need access to timetable commitments and assessment deadlines as far in advance as possible, to facilitate planning (childcare providers and after school clubs will often ask for confirmation of requirements as early as June or July). Where institutional constraints mean that teaching timetables can’t be released early, can you instigate – if you don’t have one already – a well-advertised seminar swap policy to mitigate clashes between timetabled sessions and childcare commitments?
WIth a view to providing equitable opportunities, institutions should also aim to hold careers and employability events – and offer extracurricular CV-building activities – during the “childcare day”, and actively advertise them as such to encourage student-parent involvement. Where this isn’t possible, institutions should be aiming to provide live streams (rather than recordings) of employability-enhancing events to encourage live, active participation from home.
The medium term “to do” list
Take a look at the evidence requirements of your exceptional circumstances policy through the eyes of a student parent. Those which strictly require independent third-party evidence of an impact on the student themselves will often result in a failed exceptional circumstances application in the case of child illness (the dreaded email from school requiring four-year-old Billy to be kept at home for 48 hours after an unfortunate classroom vomiting incident).
For those providers who do not already have alternative rules in place for student parents, the research suggests that it’s time to take another look at these policies.
Love them or hate them, metrics are the way forward in our increasingly consumer-focussed sector. Ultimately, tailored support of our student parents will assist not only with transition, retention, progression and completion, but also with the National Student Survey and, if done properly, Graduate Outcomes.
Plus it’s just the right thing to do. Let us not squander this opportunity to identify, support and celebrate this mighty cohort.