Universities should do more to support student mothers in order to reduce the number that drop out, a study says.
Research by the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick found that student mothers in the UK often enrolled with a specific job in mind such as midwifery or teaching but were often poorly informed about what these jobs entailed.
As a result they frequently dropped out late in the degree or during a postgraduate year, with placements often representing a “crunch point” that some student mothers find particularly difficult to juggle with childcare and, in many cases, paid work.
The study, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, was based on data from the Futuretrack study of graduates and interviews with student mothers.
Clare Lyonette, principal research fellow at the IER, said that she recognised from her own experience as a student mother in the 1990s what an “amazing struggle” it could be.
“You don’t have time to socialise; you’re there to get things done and get home as soon as you can, to start your second shift,” she said. “Student mothers do, though, tend to be amazingly resilient.”
The study also found that, while some student mothers who graduated did go on to good jobs, this group tended to experience relatively poor social mobility compared with other female students.
Some feel exhausted from higher education and feel that they need to devote more time to their family after graduating, so they put their careers on hold or go back to their old jobs, the study says.
Others work part time, and often take jobs that could have been done without a degree, such as becoming support workers rather than social workers, or teaching assistants rather than teachers.
However, most student mothers described the benefits of higher education as going beyond simple employment outcomes, citing improved self-confidence and self-fulfilment.
Dr Lyonette said that universities should consider the impact of timetabling on student mothers, perhaps providing more condensed lectures that would help to reduce childcare costs, and being more flexible when there are difficulties at home.
She also advocated providing tailored advice about courses, funding and childcare opportunities, as well as specific careers advice.
“Student mothers tend to be really hard workers and are determined to get the job done so will work hard, in spite of all the obstacles,” Dr Lyonette said. “This needs to be recognised and supported.”