It's like a cascade of buggies and over-flowing changing bags hiding in plain sight. Being pregnant and a parent while studying – whether in further or higher education – seems to be a reality we simply don't hear, see, learn about or consider. A small NUS study from 2009 found that 29 percent of students in higher and further education with children became pregnant during their studies, but not even the Office for National Statistics has a release specifically on student pregnancy and parenthood.
While as a mother I will defend to my last breath the right of anybody to have a safe and free abortion on demand, it's worth noting that many people will choose not to. This silence over what thousands of parents or pregnant people, through choice or circumstance, experience while studying looks suspiciously like an act of cultural violence. It tells us, albeit implicitly, that being a parent and being a student is mutually exclusive; that university is no place for people with children. Well, I’m calling bullshit.
Instead, we should be asking: why aren't things better? Why is the admin around Universal Credit, funding bursaries, loan payments and maintenance grants so heinous and time-consuming? Why do universities offer so little information in their marketing and on their websites aimed at student parents? Why are so many university buildings still inaccessible for anyone using a buggy, wheelchair or, of course, both? Why are university nurseries so expensive? Couldn’t we make student accommodation, facilities and buildings more parent-friendly in a way that would benefit everybody?
“There were times when I had to decide between buying tampons or milk for my daughter,” says Lizzie Blundell, who graduated from Bristol University with a first-class degree in Liberal Arts this summer, and collected her degree with her 20-month-old daughter Maria at her side. “I was getting about four hours’ sleep a night; I had to sleep on the floor quite a lot because we were in a one-bedroom flat; I was so unbelievably exhausted that, if I wanted to go out, I had to organise it months in advance.”
Lizzie had to stop breastfeeding earlier than she might have liked because she couldn’t find anywhere in the university to comfortably do so; there was no washing machine in her university flat so she had to do it all by hand; and, although she credits the university nursery as a lifeline, she wasn’t able to get the student rates out of term time (i.e: when she was writing her dissertation). Because she got maintenance loans, Parent’s Learning Allowance and other grants, she also wasn’t entitled to Universal Credit – even though, on the government website, it says that lone parents are entitled. Talking to Lizzie is like speaking to a Nobel Prize winner who climbs Everest in her spare time, between shifts as a nurse.
“I had to think seriously about whether to keep the baby after I’d given birth,” says Lizzie. “It’s a big life choice. I was 22, I was a student, I hadn’t even graduated, so how was I going to be able to afford looking after both of us? But there are a lot of lone parents in my family. I grew up in such a matriarchy where you just got things done, so I decided to go with it.”
Money, of course, hugely factors in why so many pregnant people and parents consider university to be off the table for them. Mia (AKA @CigaretteCalpol) describes the funding form approval process at the beginning of every term as a ‘full time job’. Mia got into Falmouth University after studying an access course when her first child was three years old. She met her partner during her second year, got pregnant a little quicker than expected and ended up giving birth two weeks before graduation. “Because I gave birth while still studying I couldn’t then apply for maternity benefits, because being in study counted as full time work,” Mia tells me over the phone. “But I wasn’t actually in full time work, I was a student, so there was nobody to pay me.” How did she cope? “I bought all the stuff we needed for the baby with my last loan payment.”
Many of the women I speak to also describe the fear of being written off by their tutors as a result of being pregnant or parents. “I had to do a desk-based thesis because I couldn't fly off to an exotic place to collect my research,” says Emma Smith, a laboratory technician who got pregnant in the June of her first year studying a part time MSc. “I don't think the male professors were very impressed with having a pregnant woman on the course,” she adds. “I was pregnant therefore useless, unlikely to want to continue studying or working for a well-known organisation.”
Even with support from academic staff, the sheer act of balancing the two identities of student and parent can be intense. “I did have one academic who said that if I ever had the need, my daughter could come in,” explains Lizzie. “When I thanked her, at the end of my degree, she said ‘Women support women’. But my mum brain is separate to my student brain. I don’t think it’s healthy to become a slave to your child; independence is needed on both sides. I know other mothers would disagree but I really valued my time on my own, to think and reflect on everything.”
Perhaps the single biggest factor excluding so many bright and brilliant potential students is the lack of information and access available for people who get pregnant or already have children. On many university websites you’ll be fairly hard pushed to find any information on, say, how to tell a tutor that you're pregnant, what grants you will qualify for or any parental accommodation on offer, let alone a picture of a student graduating with a toddler on their hip.
“All universities have this systemic problem of targeting 18- to 19-year-olds, but education should not be limited to that age group,” says Lizzie. “You’re cutting off a massive part of the population; people from all sorts of different backgrounds. Foundation years are a great start. But we also need baby changing units in all the toilets. Rooms where parents can work beside their children. Accessible buildings. I just wanted a ramp!”
I think back to my own university and imagine the horror of having to climb out of a 300-person lecture theatre to hurl from morning sickness, or of navigating great concrete steps with a buggy, the lack of obvious places where you could use a breast pump. “We’ve made huge strides is talking about mental health; but universities simply aren’t that accessible for people with physical disabilities or parents. Let alone people like me who are both,” says Lizzie.
It is a simple fact of biology that people will continue to have babies when they’re young. That is not going to change. All we can change, as my interviewees point out, is the way that society treats those people who – through accident or design – become parents at a time when many of their peers are still going to foam parties and discovering how to use a washing machine. It is also true that many parents will go on to achieve incredible academic results despite the structural obstacles in their way. But why not do something about those obstacles – social, physical, monetary, practical – in order to create a truly inclusive higher and further education system?
Anybody who can handle the logistical, emotional, physical and intellectual assault of new parenthood while also pursuing an academic career could probably do pretty much any job you put in front of them. I hear Prime Minister might be up for grabs quite soon.