Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/392/4440
Being a student and a parent
Everyone has a right to education
COMING TO university for the first time can be daunting as it often means uprooting yourself from your home, friends and family for extended periods. But for those with children, especially single parents, it can be terrifying.
Justine Gallagher, Manchester University Parents' Society and Socialist Students
There is so much more to consider if you have children and so many more potential obstacles to succeeding and actually enjoying university. For example, appropriate accommodation must be found, which is a challenge considering most universities only provide standard, one-bedroom residences.
Childcare is a continual worry as school holidays never coincide with university holidays. Students with children can find themselves in a precarious financial situation as grants and loans get largely used up during the year on rent, childcare, and general living costs.
This leaves nothing for the summer, when your income falls dramatically and student parents are left wondering how they are going to live and pay rent.
Life is also tougher academically, as it is very difficult to organise to spend sufficient time with your children whilst still meeting deadlines and keeping up with the course. It can often feel as if no one understands your situation and that your experiences are very different to other students. This can leave you feeling isolated and resentful.
Many universities like to advertise themselves as welcoming students from diverse backgrounds. But I have found that whilst students with children are accepted to university, once they get there, obstacles put in their way make it almost impossible to continue. Universities are geared to meeting the needs of young and free students. If you do not fit the criteria of a 'normal' student you are made to feel as if you don't quite belong.
I am a 22 year old student with a six year-old child. My university does not provide childcare for children over five so I have to take a bus to pick up my daughter from the after-school childminder every day. This takes about two hours. After a day of lectures and this journey, it is difficult for me to find the energy to spend time with my daughter and do my work.
The accommodation I have been provided with is in desperate need of repair and refurbishment. I have to make constant complaints which are often ignored, taking more time out of my day.
I have no idea how I am going to pay my rent over the summer, as the university have given me no information about the financial help available. And finally it is a constant struggle to maintain any kind of social life for me or my daughter as there is no play area for the children in my residence.
I often see young children playing in the car park! There is no social room for parents, no information given to me about local parents' groups or activities for families. There is generally no effort to put me in touch with other students in my situation.
But I'm not just complaining. Universities could be making life much easier for student parents. If a welcome pack was given to prospective student parents about local schools, childcare, facilities etc, it would help students feel that their situation is at least being recognised and taken into account.
There is no reason why childcare should not be provided for the over-fives when so many universities provide it for the under-fives. If lectures go on after school hours, this lack of provision puts student parents at a disadvantage and hampers our quality of life by forcing us to travel for miles daily.
All universities should provide campus accommodation suitable for students with children. Failure to do so is a form of discrimination, especially when campus accommodation is guaranteed to first-year students at most universities.
Where accommodation is provided, it should meet the same standards as other accommodation and include a play area for children and a social space for parents. It would also not be difficult to set up a voluntary babysitting service in the evenings, considering the amount of students that sign up to help with voluntary activities at universities.
Students with children could then occasionally enjoy the nights out that most other students take for granted. Perhaps short courses could be run to help with time management, specifically focusing on the difficulty of dividing your attention between your studies, your friends and your family.
People who have children at a young age are often from low income backgrounds, as I was. Or at least having a child young can force you into a difficult economic situation if you weren't in one already. When universities continue to put all these obstacles in the way of young parents trying to continue with their education, they are actively discriminating against the working class.
The prospect of so many economic, practical, and emotional difficulties is likely to discourage many young parents from continuing education. I have also met students who have dropped out of university because of all the difficulties I have mentioned.
I believe that everyone has the right to an education if they want it. But at the moment the best will in the world doesn't seem enough when we are battling against a system that is fundamentally biased against diversity.
For those wondering where universities would get the money to fund all the changes I have suggested, just look at how universities are currently spending their money. The University of Manchester has just spent millions on a merger with UMIST, another Manchester college. They want to increase the prestige of the university and attract investment.
If universities diverted capital away from such grand projects and started to focus on the well-being of its current students, there is no reason why these changes could not be made. The problem is that with New Labour's neo-liberal agenda for education, universities are forced to compete nationally and internationally. Money is channelled away from the poorest students into prestige-building programmes. Under a socialist system, funding would be directed to where it was most needed. The needs of the poorest students would be fulfilled as a priority.
We recognise we are living in a system that breeds inequality so I would urge all students with children to start to mobilise and challenge the university bosses to improve conditions and facilities. I have started to organise weekly meetings which provide both a social space for student parents and the opportunity to get together and discuss practical problems.
Childcare for the over-fives will be a priority campaigning issue. But as time goes on it will become clearer what the main concerns of other student parents are and we can start to get petitions signed, raise awareness and protest.
When people come together to campaign they are much stronger than individuals complaining about issues single-handedly. With some unified action and perseverance the university officials will have to start taking us seriously. Until we have made the transition to a socialist society, we need to fight for the equality that is so suffocated under capitalism.
We are fighting for:
- Free, good-quality childcare for every student parent, including for the over-fives.
- Suitable accommodation, with proper facilities for children and parents.
- No loans or top-up fees, for a living grant for every student.
In The Socialist 12 May 2005: