From prams to postgraduate degrees: how universities can support student parents

Educators play a crucial role in getting student parents the support they need. Mia Burleigh, drawing on her own experience, offers seven tips

Mia Burleigh's avatar
22 May 2024
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A woman sits at a laptop with a small toddler on the desk next to her
image credit: iStock/Choreograph.

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As educators, we play a crucial role in shaping the academic journeys of our students. Higher education can provide a brighter future for students and their families but it is a significant commitment. Our responsibility gains an added dimension when our students are also parents. 

For student parents, the stakes are much higher from the start. As educators and policymakers, we must recognise and adapt to the unique needs of student parents in order to act as pillars of support throughout their journeys. I know this because of my own journey from being an unemployed single parent to becoming an academic, which taught me many lessons.

So how can we do it?

Flexible admission policies are a lifeline 

Research shows that single parents are less likely to hold a higher education degree compared with their non-parenting counterparts. I returned to education because I wanted to create a future where I could independently support my family and be a role model to them. However, I was a single mum of two preschoolers and I had left school with no higher qualifications. Full-time study was not an option at that time, so my initial step was through the Open University. It requires no qualifications and offers online study, which allowed me to manage my parental responsibilities and gain entry qualifications. This highlights one of the most important lessons to educators: flexible admission policies. 

Provide clear pathways and support for progression

To minimise time away from home, studying locally was crucial so I picked Ayrshire College to start my full-time education. However, transitioning from college to undergraduate and then to postgraduate studies requires an understanding of the available pathways and support systems, from both a student and academic’s perspective. Educators can assist by advising on progression options and articulation routes, making scaling the educational ladder more attainable for student parents.

Offer academic skills guidance

Being the first in my family to attend university, I lacked academic support at home. We can fill this gap as educators by providing additional guidance, mentoring and support services tailored to the needs of student parents. As someone who struggled with basic academic skills like referencing, I understand how important additional support is to develop these essential skills and ensure student parents don’t feel left behind.

Adapt and innovate delivery 

There is no getting away from it: studying with small children at home is hard. When I wasn’t on campus or working in my part-time job, I studied at night, early in the morning and during nap times. This is far from the traditional university experience but it’s the reality for many student parents. We should be aware that our students have different experiences and face different challenges, and strive to offer flexible learning options and assessments. An approach like this can help student parents balance their academic and family responsibilities more effectively.

Signpost students to appropriate financial support 

Financial challenges are a significant part of the student-parent narrative. Research suggests that 22 per cent of undergraduate students are raising children, and 78 per cent of these students experience financial issues when returning to education. By clearly signposting scholarships, bursaries, discretionary funds and governmental support, we can help remove financial barriers. 

This is important at all stages of the student journey, from recruitment to undergraduate programmes, through to helping students identify financial support for postgraduate study. Transitioning to postgraduate study can be particularly difficult, especially for students embarking on research degrees. For me, the prospect of balancing further study with the financial responsibilities of supporting my young family was daunting and if I hadn’t secured a studentship with a supervisor who believed in me I would probably have left academia. We must ensure students are aware of all specialist support available to them to avoid losing student parents at this critical juncture. 

Foster a community of support

My family and academic mentors were crucial sources of support in my journey. We should endeavour to build a supportive community for student parents. This can be through mentoring programmes, support groups or simply being a compassionate listener. Student parents often cannot take part in university social activities alongside their peers, so these initiatives can make the journey less lonely and help integrate them into the university community. 

Advocate for institutional changes

Reflecting on the entirety of my academic journey, it’s clear that institutional policies and practices can significantly impact the success of student parents. A simple action that makes a huge difference is to publish timetables early to allow parents to organise childcare well in advance of the start of term. Advocating for flexible scheduling, childcare facilities and policies that acknowledge and support the unique needs of student parents is crucially important. 

My story, while unique, is not isolated. It reflects a universal truth: education has the power to transform lives. As educators supporting student parents, we can draw inspiration from journeys like mine. We should understand that with the right support and opportunities, student parents can achieve remarkable academic and professional goals. Each student parent in our classrooms is not just pursuing a degree; they’re also setting an exemplary standard of resilience and determination for their children and fellow students.

Education has transformative power. We should commit ourselves to making this journey accessible and achievable for student parents. In doing so, we contribute to a legacy of learning that transcends generations because education should be a path open to all, regardless of their starting point. 

Mia Burleigh is lecturer in sport and exercise at the University of the West of Scotland.

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