Not making it easier for mums - or dads

Jenny Gristock asks if the needs of students with children are being ignored

August 1, 1997

Parents of sixth-formers cannot be having an easy time right now. But what of another group of mums and dads: those who are still at college? How can they face the prospect of abolished grants and huge loan repayments when there are shoes to be bought and nursery fees to be paid?

The numbers of students with family responsibilities are growing; all over the country, university creches are oversubscribed, with some resorting to the rationing of childcare to shorten the waiting lists.

The news that, in future, students will have to take out loans to pay for their own maintenance and tuition fees is particularly alarming for students who are parents too. Rented accommodation for families is scarce and expensive. The cost of childcare, even that subsidised by student unions, burns a sizeable hole in the pocket of students with dependants. These factors alone can make parent graduates as much as Pounds 3-4,000 a year worse off than their childless peers. Will the new loan payback system be designed to take the needs of such families into account?

Although the Dearing committee recommends that the payback system should be designed to collect "contributions which are sensitive to an individual graduate's circumstances", nothing was said about how additional family responsibilities might affect repayment of a graduate's loan.

This is surprising, given that David Robertson and Josh Hillman, authors of the sixth National Commission on Education report just published, say: "Students from lower socio-economic groups have significantly higher levels of essential expenditure . . . largely due to the additional costs of housing and childcare".

Students with families are still reeling from a financial blow inflicted by the research councils. Last October the postgraduate's dependants' allowance, a payment intended to contribute to the cost of having a child, was scrapped. A lesser allowance, available only to lone parents, was put in its place.

After these changes, student spouses without income found themselves classified as having "benefit in kind", even where no such payments existed. Some postgraduate student families of three or more must now live off a single person's allowance.

Such problems, although experienced by an unhappy minority, are not unknown. A recent survey found that one fifth of higher education students aged over 25 cited childcare as a barrier to access. The Dearing committee concludes that this factor contributes to the higher drop-out rates of female mature and part-time students. Small wonder then, that women are still very much under-represented on postgraduate research degrees. According to the Higher Education Statistical Agency, only 35 per cent of postgraduate research students are women.

According to Claire Callender of the Policy Studies Institute, more than a third of married or cohabiting students with children, and more than half of all one-parent students, are "discontent with the levels of awareness of the needs of students with family responsibilities and with childcare provision".

Her report to the Dearing committee concludes that this situation is particularly worrisome since for these families, "education plays a particular role as the key route out of poverty and dependence on state benefits".

Jenny Gristock is a doctoral student, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

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