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Balancing books and babies: The student parent university experience

The trials and tribulations of being a student parent at the University of Bristol.

By Lily Farrant, Investigations Editor

Between studying and meeting deadlines, socialising and meeting people, navigating sports, societies, maybe also a job, being a student is a balancing act. Meanwhile, based on an NUS estimate, last year between 949 and 1518 students at the University of Bristol had to consider a whole other occupation in the mix: parenting.

The last official in-depth report on student parents at the University of Bristol was the 2012 Student Parents Report. It suggested that the support offered by the University was insufficient, outlining that “It has no policy or guidance for its staff to follow in the event of student pregnancy or parenthood.”

The 2012 report boded for a vast improvement in the support available to student parents. By acknowledging that other universities, such as the Universities of Leeds and Manchester, have clear policies and procedures to support student parents, the report recognised the areas in which the University of Bristol was lacking.

Today, support for student parents exists in a myriad of forms, such as mentoring services, funding support, and 1:1 advice from the Mature Student and Peers Adviser.

The Adviser runs an introduction event and mingles throughout the year, as well as signposting to additional support around the University and within the Student Union to work through any individual challenges and concerns.

Despite these efforts, in a recent poll in the Student Union’s Parents, Carers and Mature Students’ Network, 50% of responses indicated that they don’t believe that all student parents receive similar treatment from the University. When asked if they felt supported by the University, nearly 80% of responses were only “sometimes”.

The lack of clear infrastructure pointed out eight years ago may therefore still be an issue, meaning that the experiences of student parents at the University of Bristol could differ widely.

Tucked behind the Arts and Social Sciences library is the University Nursery. Set up and run by student parents, the nursery is a non-profit organization that exists to support students and staff alike. Speaking to Justine, the nursery manager, she explained that with very different timetables, different students had different requirements from the nursery.

Priority places are given to student parents, many of whom can also benefit from lower student rates. Their main role being to help students get through their studies, the nursery even develop individual payment plans for parents struggling financially.

One mother, whose children attended the nursery, sang their praises: ‘The nursery staff were all fantastic and really supported me. I cannot fault them at all.’

Speaking to Epigram, she opened up about her experiences with the University.

‘I was just out of an abusive relationship and had moved to a different county where I had no support network in place. I think the University staff were extremely supportive and my tutors, lecturers and the accommodation staff were wonderful.’

Entrance to the Arts and Social Sciences Library. | Epigram / Siavash Minoukadeh

‘The friend group I made were extremely supportive of me being able to go out with other friends, or date etc; so they would volunteer to have the girls, so I could go out and enjoy the university experience.’

Her advice to parents starting university is ‘to get a good group of friends that are supportive and encourage you to have fun and let your hair down when you need to.’

A few months ago, 50% of parents answered that they felt that there was a community of other students who shared in their experiences. The Bristol Student Union’s Parent, Carers and Mature Students’ Network was set up in 2019 in a promising step towards building a vibrant community and raising the profile of this group of students across the University.

Last year, they organised a variety of events for students throughout the year, often partnering up with other societies.

Beyond the fun, the work of this Network to support and represent student parents is more important now than ever. Balancing parenting and studying is a challenge at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.

Successful campaigning by the Student Union meant that the Safety Net policy was formed using some feedback from student parents, the provision of financial assistance was expanded by increasing hardship funding, and university nursery fees were reduced by 10%, in order to support student parents during these difficult times.

Ben Hobbs, the Chair of the Network, stated that ‘parents and carers have been stretched, perhaps over-stretched’.

One mother of three children with special needs, described her first year studying Psychology as ‘hell’. She told Epigram that ‘Covid, strikes and not being able to arrange child care for later lectures combined into missing a vast proportion of lectures.’

This mother explained that at the beginning of the pandemic she ‘couldn’t get anything done’. Yet when she emailed the University to explain her predicament she felt that the University could not provide a suitable solution, and now feels ‘completely unprepared’ for her second year of study.

The vast differences in the experiences of student parents is unfair. The University’s dismissive attitude reflects the insecurity generated by the pandemic, but also the lack of infrastructure that exists to support student parents and carers.

‘Parents and carers have been stretched, perhaps over-stretched’.

These are undeniably unforeseen circumstances, but within these changing circumstances parents are not always being supported.

The impacts of coronavirus mean that the upcoming academic year will be different for us all. Extending the teaching day to 8pm does mean more in person teaching, but may also have unintentionally negatively impacted parents and carers, who have to find childcare in these times.

The University nursery have considered extending their hour of care, but this comes with further challenges and complications such as paying staff more for later hours.

When the future is as uncertain as it is right now, one thing remains clear: we are all navigating a difficult situation, but some students are having to face a whole different set of challenges. Support for student parents at this time needs to be stronger than ever.

In the face of these challenges, Ben Hobbs stated that ‘It is comforting to know that the Student Union is working with the University of Bristol to address these concerns, as well as the wider challenges faced.’

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The University have emphasised that any student feeling disadvantaged by their circumstances during lockdown should submit an extenuating circumstances form, and that “the additional pressures of home-schooling and childcare could be given as a reason and would be considered on an individual basis, in line with the Regulations and Code of Practice.”

The University Press Office has also stated that “The support available to student parents is University-wide, and all are entitled to fair and equal treatment. Any students who felt this was not their experience should raise the issue with their school or faculty in the first instance. We recognise the valuable contribution student parents make to our University community and it is in our interest and theirs to ensure the support is there to allow them to pursue and succeed in their studies.”

For those that want to be more involved in the student parent community, the Mature Students, Parents and Carers Network will be creating their first ever committee in October as they continue to turn the Network into a vibrant community.

Featured Image: Josh Applegate / Unsplash