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You are reading: A balancing act: Supporting students who are parents to succeed in Australian higher education

Lisa Andrewartha1, Dr Elizabeth Knight2, Andrea Simpson1, Hannah Beattie1

Executive summary

The advantages associated with higher education are well documented, however students who are parents face many obstacles to success at this level. Juggling caring responsibilities alongside study requirements places high demands on the time and energy of student parents, many of whom have additional employment commitments. Financial constraints create an additional barrier to success, with groups at particular risk of disadvantage including young parents, single parents, and parents from low socio-economic backgrounds. Given these challenges, the traditional nature of higher education study may not adequately accommodate the specific circumstances of student parents. Improved processes and support mechanisms could encourage more parents through higher education as a pathway to building knowledge, improving employment prospects, and gaining independence.

The project

Despite the barriers faced by student parents, a specific focus on this group has been largely absent from the Australian student equity agenda. There is limited literature on student parents’ access and achievement in Australian higher education. To address this gap, the study sought to establish the first major evidential base of student parents in Australian higher education. For the purposes of this research, a broad definition was adopted of student parents as people who provide care for at least one child while studying in higher education. The project explored the self-identified motivations, challenges, and strengths of these students. Findings are based on an examination of available datasets, a desktop review of related institutional policy and practice, and a national survey. The research was conducted by La Trobe University, in collaboration with the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. The report contributes new insights for the development of strategies to better support student parents to access and succeed in higher education.

Key findings

The team found a general lack of data on the parenting status of higher education students. Snapshot data from the 2016 Census suggests that the student parent population is large, with 12.7 per cent of students enrolled in a university or other tertiary institution caring for their own children. The same dataset indicated almost a third of students who were studying part time were parents. The paucity of current data on the size and geo-demographic profile of this group, however, presents a major barrier to providing meaningful support and policies for parents who study. It would be constructive to introduce a system to confidentially identify parents at the time of application or enrolment so strategies can be targeted to this group.

A desktop review of publicly available information on Australian university websites revealed support for students who are parents to be narrow and inadequate. While on-campus childcare facilities were common, places were often scarce and expensive. General parenting facilities, such as feeding and baby changing rooms, were also in short supply and difficult to access. Additional parent-specific forms of support, such as peer networks, resource guides, and reserved parking bays, were only evident at a small number of institutions.

Through the project national survey, student parents revealed that they were highly motivated to succeed in higher education. Participants possessed a range of skills and qualities developed through their parenting roles that were translatable and beneficial in their studies. These students had developed time management and communication skills, and showed enhanced commitment, patience, empathy, resilience, and determination. Student parents also improved the broader student experience by sharing different perspectives and life experiences and taking on leadership roles. Despite these strengths, balancing parenting and study produced considerable time pressure and financial constraints and affected wellbeing. Single parents tended to have exceptionally high demands on their time and an increased likelihood of economic hardship, including housing issues.

Findings also indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic caused additional challenges for many student parents, including significant disruptions to their own study arrangements and restricted childcare options. Transitions to remote learning for school-aged children and impacts on employment activities were demanding and stressful. As a result of the crisis, parenting responsibilities increased, mental health was negatively impacted, and financial pressures worsened. A substantial portion of student parents were forced to reduce their study load to manage their changed family and domestic commitments.

In general, student parents noted a lack of understanding and accommodation of their needs across the higher education community. Studying was often made more difficult by inflexible course structures and study requirements. Timetabling was overly rigid and applying for special consideration could be onerous . Compulsory placements were difficult to organise satisfactorily, especially when they were unpaid and inflexible towards parenting schedules. Participants highlighted a range of initiatives that could promote their success, including specific scholarships and bursaries, and increased flexibility around study arrangements, special consideration, timetabling, and placements.

Additional research is needed to further understand student parents’ issues, and to identify, support, and monitor the success of these students. It is clear from our research that the requirements of student parents are different from those of the general student population, and these students can readily convey their issues and suggestions if given the appropriate forum. Greater awareness and appreciation of this often disadvantaged group is needed.

Collectively, evidence suggests that higher education institutions could formulate specific policies around student parents to improve their success levels. These students are an asset in higher education due to their many strengths and wide-ranging experiences, yet effective support and understanding is lacking. There exists a clear opportunity and obligation to attract and retain student parents who are committed to achieving a higher education.


Higher education institutions

  • Collect and report on student parent data at the time of application or enrolment, via confidential means, if targeted support can be offered and progress monitored.
  • Promote institutional awareness of the likelihood that a high proportion of higher education students have parenting responsibilities. Develop communication strategies and professional development activities that highlight the unique strengths and challenges of student parents, with direct input from student parents themselves.
  • Extend traditional university outreach activities beyond secondary schools to adult settings, community groups, and networks that serve parents. Foreground alternative entry pathways and consider employing student parents as outreach officers.
  • Encourage transitions from vocational education and training (VET) programs and participation in taster courses, enabling programs, and foundation studies where needed to increase preparedness for university study, especially for parents transitioning to higher education later in life. Ensure enabling and foundation programs are available part time and taster courses and experiential opportunities do not coincide with school holidays.
  • Recognise the strengths and qualities of parents and their contributions to family and community in contextual admissions schemes.
  • Advocate, mobilise and coordinate resources and expertise to support student parents through peak bodies such as the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia (EPHEA).
  • Consider student parents’ needs when designing flexible study and assessment arrangements, including: preferential access to timetables; streamlined special consideration processes; learning access plans that recognise parenting responsibilities as an added challenge in meeting learning goals; support services that are accessible remotely; and flexibility around assignment extensions.
  • Include student parents in targeted financial support measures, including tuition fee waivers and cost-of-living scholarships for those most in need.
  • Encourage student parents to confidentially disclose their parental status at the time of application or enrolment and provide these students with information about enrichment opportunities (e.g. leadership, mentoring) and institutional support (e.g. financial assistance, academic support, and counselling).
  • Identify student parents who have made the transition to higher education successfully and use these students as mentors, where possible, and as case studies that outline how effective accommodations and support can promote achievement.
  • Support the establishment of (online and asynchronous) peer groups for student parents to promote the wellbeing and success of student parents.
  • Expand winter and summer subject offerings, and double credit point subjects, to enable student parents to complete their degrees in a shorter timeframe.
  • Create accessible placements which can accommodate parenting responsibilities and provide student parents with preferential choice of placements where possible.
  • Create dedicated study spaces for student parents, with safe and age-appropriate play areas for children.
  • Reserve a sufficient number of on-campus accommodation places for student parents and their families.
  • Create dedicated car parking bays for students who have parenting and other caring responsibilities.
  • Ensure there are adequate parenting facilities, feeding rooms, parenting rooms, rest rooms and baby change rooms, that are clearly signposted and easily accessible to students as well as staff.
  • Apply to the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s (ABA) Breastfeeding Welcome Here program. Consider requesting a free site inspection by the ABA to join other higher education institutions who have the accreditation as a Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace.

National and state/territory governments

  • Work with higher education institutions to develop a website and online clearinghouse for prospective student parents. Include provision for student parents in the Beyond School Study Guide and consider more age inclusive language.
  • Commission further research that captures the voices of student parents nationally to inform higher education policy. This work could actively involve student parents in the design and conduct of the research.
  • Increase financial support for parents who are studying, especially single parents. Offer financial incentives for parents to engage in education within the ParentsNext program and consider doubling the Education Entry Payment (EdEP).
  • Introduce additional childcare subsidies for parents who are studying.

Service providers and peak bodies for parents

  • Promote education-specific resources on parenting websites and through helplines to encourage and support access to tertiary education.
  • Access and profile the voices of student parents who have made the transition to tertiary education successfully and use these people as mentors where possible.
  • Consider a tailored social media campaign to recognise and celebrate student parents at important times in the course application cycle.

Read the full report: A balancing act: supporting students who are parents to succeed in Australian higher education.

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1La Trobe University
2Victoria University

Expert Review

Dr Tamsin Hinton-Smith
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education
Co-Director, Sussex Centre for Gender Studies
University of Sussex, UK

In this report, Lisa Andrewartha and colleagues draw attention to the challenges experienced by higher education students who are parents in Australia. This work addresses an identified gap in existing insights in Australia’s higher education equity agenda. The mixed methods study triangulates desk research of institutional policies with interviews prioritising creating space for student voice of this often marginalised group. This approach enables valuable insight into what approaches support and hinder the higher education success of student parents, supporting the development of good practice recommendations.

The research is positioned within the context of international scholarship in this area, with observations and recommendations that have wider relevance beyond the Australian context. The research includes focus around student parents’ educational transitions, motivations, and disclosure (or not) of parental status, incorporating attention to the impact of circumstances on students’ wider student experience beyond the academic.

The authors identify the broad benefits of supporting successful higher education participation for student parents, including benefits to individual and familial financial wellbeing, but also broader social benefits of increasing education and economic self-sufficiency levels. Inclusion of students who have discontinued their university studies, alongside those currently studying and those who have completed, allows the research to illuminate a range of trajectories including identifying factors involved in the decision not to continue. This insight will be vital for all of those working within the sector to improve these outcomes. The inclusion of foster parents and kinship carers alongside biological parents is a further strength to developing understanding.

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