An important cohort of humanity is largely precluded from making good research contributions during their PhDs: international students with family commitments.
The whole PhD process discriminates against them. Humanity’s bodies of knowledge are robbed of the insights that come from the unique perspectives such students might offer.
One of my PhD students is from the Middle East and is a single mother. Having two children in UK schools takes up a lot of time: cooking, cleaning, tending children when ill, taking them to the doctors, frequent liaising with schools about their progress or behaviour, caring for them during school holidays – and accompanying them home to renew visas.
While young, single PhD students can work late into the evening, read widely, write papers that build up their CVs, and also take part in the communal life of the research community, she cannot.
Single parents in the UK might be able to pay for childcare, but her scholarship does not allow this. And childcare does not cover frequent liaison with schools, nor quality time with parents. And in her culture, family is more important than it seems to be in the UK.
UK and European Union students might be able to study part time, but international students must study full-time in order to comply with visa regulations.
She is not alone: I have two other PhD students in similar situations – all of them come from cultures where family life takes a higher priority than it does in the UK.
Because of family commitments, not only is the time available for the pursuit of a PhD seriously reduced, but stress and pressure increase. Other members of the family also suffer. Increased stress hinders one’s ability to read widely and think critically and creatively, which are important for PhDs. It’s a vicious circle and preclusion from the PhD community exacerbates these problems.
All this puts such students at a disadvantage compared with most PhD students. With a thinner CV, her prospects for a career in or out of academia are reduced.
Such barriers can disincentivise those with children from undertaking PhDs, especially single mothers and international students. This can also apply to men, although in cultures where family ties are strong, women expect, and are expected, to devote a greater amount of time to their families than men.
“PhDs demand sacrifices!” is an opinion that I have heard voiced in response to this issue. Maybe, but why should a doctoral candidate’s children and spouse also suffer? Why should children be robbed of quality time with their parent, left to their own devices to go awry?
Why should the sacrifice be greater for international students with family commitments? Is this not a form of discrimination? Is it right that those with family commitments are largely precluded from becoming independent researchers and contributing to humanity’s bodies of knowledge (which is what PhD research enables)?
Will we not lose out if the perspectives that such people might offer are not adequately represented? Why should our discourses and bodies of knowledge be mainly the preserve of young, single individuals who have few commitments?
We have a problem. Googling “family-friendly PhDs” turned up zero results from universities in the UK, and only two in the US. Has any UK university actively considered the issue and taken steps to make PhDs family-friendly? With Brexit coming, is it not time for innovative institutions in the UK to develop family-friendly PhDs?
Obviously part of the solution is to provide more family-friendly infrastructure; family-friendly accommodation near the university and support groups so that students with families find it easier to be part of the research community.
But infrastructure alone does not address the root issue: that time, which most single students can devote to their research, is consumed by necessary family matters among students caring for children.
I favour instituting a four-year PhD option that is halfway between full-time and part-time study. A Tier 4 visa can be issued for whatever the institution officially defines the length of a course to be.
I hope that my own institution might take a lead in this, but if not, perhaps some of the smaller institutions, such as those in the Cathedrals Group, might see family-friendly PhDs as a pioneering opportunity.
Family-friendly PhDs is an issue that deserves discussion – and action.
Andrew Basden is a professor of human factors and philosophy in information systems at the University of Salford