Paying lip service is not enough

August 20, 1999

Single mothers should be first in line for the government's student hardship funds, says Louise Chalkley.

The government's decision to review hardship loans and access funds comes not a moment too soon. As the number of mature students increases, it is absurd that a more flexible and realistic system of hardship fund allocation has not been implemented by universities already.

At the University of Wales, Lampeter, for example, students became so frustrated by the ludicrous hardship fund arrangements that they formed a protest group called "Parents in Education" to try to increase the small amounts of cash allocated to students in obvious and abject poverty.

It became clear that out of an available fund of more than Pounds 50,000 for 1,500 students, occasional hand-outs of Pounds 100 to mature students with families were wholly unsatisfactory. What further infuriated many mature students was that having two or three children to support entitled them to only Pounds 50 more from the hardship fund than a single student might receive.

Both the government and the universities are systematically failing mature students. The administration of the hardship fund creates a two-tiered system that leaves a university education for the young, free and single.

In response to my requests for financial assistance, the government directed me to apply to the university hardship fund for help towards my nursery fees, which are more than Pounds 1,000 a term. This resulted in the award of an amount that would barely make a dent in those fees, let alone in my everyday expenditure, such as bills and rent.

After lengthy discussions with many of the other students, we contacted the local newspaper. I brought my children into the college offices and made it clear that I would not move until I was given an explanation of how the hardship fund was allocated.

I was immediately awarded another Pounds 300 but, to this day, even after repeated requests for information about how the awards are given, the university refuses to tell us the criteria for what is deemed "hardship".

It may be no coincidence that the majority of people in real need trying to study and support a family are women.

The government has been trying to encourage single mothers out of the benefit trap, where they are stigmatised and demoralised, and into work. That same government then appears unwilling to provide the practical assistance of child care and extra cash to help those women receive a third-level education.

Many universities are experiencing extreme difficulties recruiting and keeping students. I suggest universities take steps to offer free nursery places to students with small children, to be paid for from the hardship fund. This would encourage more mature students to enrol and, importantly, keep them there.

Louise Chalkley is a mature student with two children, aged two and three.She is completing a full-time MA in archaeological research at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and hopes to start a PhD in October.

Should universities provide free child care for mature students?

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