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What we learnt at the student parents and carers roundtable

Friday 01-04-2016 - 10:41

It is crucial that student parents and carers are not shut out from higher education

Last month we held a roundtable event which saw parents and carers from across the UK come together and share their experiences of accessing and succeeding in higher education.

Our previous research, including the ‘Learning with Care’ report in 2013, ‘Meet the Parents’ in 2009 and ’10 Steps to a Child-Friendly Campus’, has shown us that parents and carers face a number of barriers throughout their university experience. What is more, student representational structures can be inaccessible and inflexible meaning that the issues these students face are often left side-lined.

This, coupled with a government narrative that assumes all students are 18 years old with no caring responsibilities, makes it is essential that students’ unions become better equipped to provide effective and well considered support for student parents and carers.

Our day began with some reflection on NUS’ previous research, with parents and carers identifying the types of barriers they’ve come up against at university. Many students, both incoming and existing, are struggling to access information and support services. These are a crucial lifeline to many students and are a key factor for success and retention. When students are able to access support services however, they are often met with negative attitudes which fail to grasp the often complex and changing identities of students with caring responsibilities. More needs to be done to ensure that students are able to access suitable support services and improve awareness of the nature of the student parent and carer identity.

Finance remains to be a big issue and has only grown at the hands of government cuts. Whilst funding that is available from the state varies across all UK nations, austerity is hitting parents and carers hard across the UK. We need cost of living campaigns that encompass the unique needs of parents and carers.

Funding worries affect postgrads too, who are often bound by inflexible regulations from research councils regarding leave and maternity leave. These difficulties extend to international students, who again face strict visa regulations in regards to taking leave. This system is inflexible and unworkable and unfairly penalises student parents and carers whose rely on having flexible working and learning practices.

Institutions need to do more to help- whether it’s acting as a guarantor for international parent and carer students or making sure reading weeks are in line with half terms. Students’ unions will play a pivotal role in making this happen and we will make sure that they are equipped with all they need to fight for change.

However the day definitely wasn’t all doom and gloom and in the afternoon we set about answering the question of representation. We already know that student parent and carers’ voices often go unheard because representational structures are not suited to their needs and we heard some great success stories of how unions have been working to address this.

Whether it’s through providing suitable support structures as soon as officers start in their positions or building campus based peer support networks, there’s a lot out there to be celebrated. With the landscape of higher education changing, it is crucial that more measures like this are taken to ensure that student parents and carers are not shut out from higher education.

Over the coming weeks we will be reflecting on all that we learnt at the roundtable to produce new resources for students’ unions to run well informed campaigns, provide effective support and improve the accessibility of representational structures for student parents and carers.

 

Sorana Vieru

Vice President (Higher Education)

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