This is part of my series on what we can do to support young parents in the UK to realise their full potential and put an end to stigma. For the rest of the series, click here.
A common misconception about young parents is that they lack ambition. One of the reasons given for high rates of pregnancy in under-20s is that they have no drive to achieve anything – and as a result of this, they’re unlikely to go to university after having a baby, right?
Well, not exactly. The honest answer is, we have no idea how many student parents there actually are, because universities aren’t required to collect data on how many of their students have parenting responsibilities for a child under the age of eighteen. What we do know, from a study carried out by the NUS, is:
- The majority of student parents are female mature students who study part-time.
- 3/4 feel that being a student parent is a positive experience.
- 60% have thought of dropping out of university.
- The attitude and support of university staff is a major swing factor in whether they stay or not.
- One in ten student parents reports feelings of isolation.
Why aren’t more young parents studying?
For the sake of the post, we’ll be focusing on young student parents. Although mature students are usually classified as those who begin their studies after the age of 25, we’ll follow the NUS study’s example, and classify young student parents as under-25s.
Young student parents often report feeling “invisible”. They don’t fall into the bracket of a traditional student, despite being the same age, but they don’t fit the mature student bracket either, despite having similar responsibilities. In addition to this, the group is worryingly small. For this reason, the needs of young student parents are often overlooked, and there’s very little research been done into outcomes for this group.
So, why aren’t more young parents going into higher education? One of the simplest explanations is that they just don’t want to, which I’m sure is perfectly true for some young parents. What I’m going to talk about is the young parents who want to study, but feel unable to do so for one reason or another.
Societal expectation plays a big part in preventing young mums from feeling that they can go and study. I remember one of the first pieces of advice I received, when I asked on Netmums about the practicalities of studying while pregnant/with a baby, was “Why should I pay my taxes so you can pop out a baby and go gallivating off at uni?”. The subsequent replies weren’t much better. There’s an expectation that young mums should fit the media-driven stereotype of sitting at home, refusing to work and delivering a constant stream of babies.
Society also describes successful young student parents as an exception to the rule. This trope is harmful in itself; it paints young parents as incapable of success and life as a student parent as something almost-impossible, suggesting that those who can balance the two successfully are “special”. Instead, we should be encouraging more young mums into uni, recognising that it will pay off in terms of their ambition and employability in the future.
Family and friends also have a big role to play in encouraging their loved ones to apply for university. Whether that’s through offering practical help – assistance with personal statements and interviews, or even offering childcare if that’s something you can commit to – or just the moral support a young parent needs to believe in their abilities.
Isolation is a massive part of life as a young parent, but it’s something friends can help with. This is particularly important if your friend has a baby whilst at university – you should maintain the same friendship you had before the pregnancy. Isolation can trigger postnatal depression, which is a huge risk factor for dropping out of university.
What can the university do?
For the university itself, there’s a list of things they can do to encourage student parents to choose their institution, and to ensure that they are family-friendly. These are the things I’d advise any young parent or young parent-to-be to look out for when choosing their university –
- A clear, fair maternity policy. Universities should never assume that student pregnancies won’t happen. It’s important that the policy is easy to find by both staff and students; that the staff are happy to discuss the maternity policy with you, and that it makes your rights and obligations clear to you. Young dads, look for the paternity policy too – all universities should have one.
- A positive attitude. Universities should celebrate the achievements of their student parents. When discussing options, student parents should be told what they can do, not what they can’t.
- A culture of acceptance. Babies and children – and, by extension, their parents – should never be viewed as an inconvenience. The right to breastfeed freely in public is enshrined in law, and universities must accept this. Facilitating the breastfeeding relationship by offering quiet spaces to feed is a nice extra, but at the very least, defending students’ rights to breastfeed in public spaces is vital.
- Solid student support. Most mature student parents already have homes of their own, but younger ones – particularly single parents – would benefit from halls suitable for families. If these aren’t available, ensure that the university has a student support staff member trained in dealing with pregnancy and maternity, to point students in the direction of family-friendly landlords and accommodation agencies.
Wrexham Glyndwr University went above and beyond for us as a family, helping me succeed while pregnant, and helping Daf and I achieve our potential as students after SB was born. The benefits to universities of supporting their students through pregnancy and parenthood are clear; I now recommend Wrexham Glyndwr to any parent wanting to study, as they truly embody a family-friendly university.
The responsibility for helping young parents into higher education doesn’t end with the university itself, however. Many of the obstacles to education come from an even higher power.
What are the government getting wrong?
Money. Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t live without it – and it all becomes a little more vital when you’ve got a child to look after. You may be able to live the student lifestyle of noodles and toast for every meal, but your baby can’t. Ideally, young mums would be able to breastfeed – but my previous post has shown that for a variety of reasons, this often isn’t the case – so formula is one expense to consider. Once weaning begins, healthy food is a must. And where does this money come from?
Let’s be real, lots of “traditional” students struggle to hold down studying and a job. Student parents will struggle even more; especially single parents. So while saying “get a job and provide for your own kid” probably gets you plenty of Likes on your right-wing Facebook group, it’s not realistic advice. Like almost all students, student parents rely on the student finance system. I’m grateful for it, but it’s far from perfect.
So where does the money go? Well, reality check, the baby has to go somewhere while the student parent is in class. It’s not always as simplistic as asking family to be unpaid childcare – distance, family breakdowns and the family having their own jobs are all reasons why this is not the universal solution. Childminders or nursery are usually the only option – but childcare grants through student finance will only cover up to a certain percentage. This was the case back in 2008, when the NUS called for the Childcare Grant to be upped to 100%. Almost ten years later, it’s still capped at 85%.
Half of all student parents have missed class due to a problem with childcare. Student parents aren’t “ideal customers” for childcare providers; due to erratic hours and having to wait until student finance pay the student, for the student to pay the childcare fees. This sometimes leaves student parents without a childcare placement at all, so it’s no wonder many don’t even bother trying. It can appear to be more hassle than it is worth.
There is no clear, concise information on student finance for student parents. (I’ve tried to remedy that a little with my no-nonsense guide to Student Finance Wales for student parents, but I’m a blog rather than an official source of financial advice) – and as for regular benefits in addition to student finance; that’s opening up a brand new can of worms. When I was pregnant, we went to the Citizens Advice Bureau. They admitted they had no knowledge of the system for student parents, but told us that they didn’t think we’d be eligible for anything – even Child Benefit or tax credits. We then went to our local council, who took all of our student finance into account, reached out a massive book – because they had no idea either – and told us we were eligible for this, that and the other.
Which was great, until a massive bill came through for an overpayment of benefit, which we’re now having to pay back. We’re far from alone; student parents are ending up in massive debt because there is a total lack of cohesion between student finance and the DWP. The two organisations don’t work together and won’t even attempt to work together, and it’s the student parents who are left behind to pick up the pieces. Until the government come up with a solid strategy to streamline services for student parents and ensure that no-one is being penalised for receiving shoddy advice, the system won’t improve.
Why should young parents study at university?
There are so many benefits to continuing into higher education as a young parent. Staving off isolation is a major benefit. You’re constantly surrounded by other people in your classes, and it opens up an entirely new network of people for you to interact with. Trying to get the student life experience as much as possible is important – young parents shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about the occasional night out, or joining clubs and societies, and the student union should take steps to make their activities as parent-friendly as possible.
A university degree gives you more than just a piece of paper at the end of it all. In addition to career-boosting qualifications, you come out with increased confidence, better communication skills and vital time-management abilities. It’s a test of your determination and motivation, but you come out with the belief in yourself that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.
If nothing else, there’s one experience that makes becoming a student parent worthwhile. After all the hard work and the stress, nothing compares to the pride of crossing that stage on graduation day, watched by your child. You’re setting a great example to them, and nothing is more rewarding than that.