Juggling third level education with parenthood is demanding. Orla Keaveney asks whether UCD is providing enough support.
WHILE getting through university is a challenge for most students, few can imagine the difficulties faced by those who have to raise their own children while completing their studies. A third-level course is as demanding as a full-time job, except it costs money rather than providing it. On top of this, student-parents have to deal with the same childcare costs that overwhelm many dual-income households.
The Irish employment market places a disproportionate emphasis on third-level qualification, and having a degree is one of the only ways to earn above the minimum wage. Parents with dependent children are in particular need of means to improve their employment prospects, yet they face the greatest challenges in completing a university course.
“Parents with dependent children are in particular need of means to improve their employment prospects, yet they face the greatest challenges in completing a university course.”
According to the Higher Education Authority, 15% of undergraduates are mature students, and those with children are forced to cover the costs of both tuition fees and childcare.
While parenthood is normally associated exclusively with the older generation, childcare also affects some younger students – in 2015, the Irish Teen Parents Support Programme (TPSP) helped almost 1000 parents under the age of 20 to continue their education, and acknowledges that there may be many more young parents who never access these services.
Despite the supposedly “free fees” available to school-leavers entering third-level, the TPSP reports that the cost of childcare is the greatest factor blocking young parents from progressing beyond the Leaving Cert. This is a major issue that demands more attention to be solved.
After rent, utilities and transport, childcare is the fourth-biggest reason for dependency on the Student Assistance Fund, an emergency financial support for third-level students. Considering that this ranking does not account for the parents who never even start a course due to the financial strain, it is clear that the current system is failing to support all those in need.
“The cost of childcare is the greatest factor blocking young parents from progressing beyond the Leaving Cert.”
To help student-parents, UCD has an on-campus childcare service, Oakmount Crèche, located near the Clonskeagh entrance. However, the crèche only has the capacity for 120 children under eight years old, 30% of which are students’ children – the rest are staff members’ kids. Places for students’ children are means tested, as the combined income of both parents must be under €39,000. For those that get in, UCD only covers up to 50% of childcare costs, and the full price is charged outside of term. For parents that do not qualify for a place, or whose children are over the age of eight, no support is provided by the university.
Despite needing to earn at least €400 a month to cover this subsidised childcare, student-parents are expected to meet the same deadlines as their childless colleagues. Many parent-students have to rule out the possibility of getting an honours degree because they simply cannot keep up with the readings and assignments, and any involvement in societies, clubs or volunteering is unimaginable. The only parents who can make this difficult situation work are the ones with external help. Unsupported parents who have the more urgent need to reskill, are the ones who face the greatest obstacles.
Compared with other universities in Ireland, UCD is doing the bare minimum to help its students with children: Trinity and DIT both offer funding programmes towards childcare, and TCD SU has a dedicated Student Parent Officer, unlike UCD. While the obvious solution would be to put more money towards child-care schemes, this seems unlikely as there are already so many demands on the UCD budget. Student parents are in a minority compared to other groups in need of funding, and when it comes to taking responsibility for other people’s children, the risks and liabilities involved make childcare a particularly thorny issue to get involved in.
“Compared with other universities in Ireland, UCD is doing the bare minimum to help its students with children: Trinity and DIT both offer funding programmes towards childcare, and TCD SU has a dedicated Student Parent Officer, unlike UCD.”
A low-cost option could be a society for student parents. Students have more flexible hours than a 9-to-5 worker, so could potentially form a network to help each other with childcare. However, the vast majority of student-parents would be unavailable to organise a society with so much responsibility, especially when they are juggling studies and raising a child. There may also be reluctance to accept these measures, feeling that UCD would consider their problems “solved”, and cut the existing child-care supports. UCD would need to help out with the establishment of this society, and reassure parents that their needs would not be ignored.
While the newly-elected Welfare Officer Eoghan Mac Domhnaill does not mention a stance specifically regarding student-parents in his manifesto, his “engagement policy” indicates that he will be open to hearing the concerns of anyone affected by this issue.
The UCD SU Welfare Office can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, by ringing 01 716 3112, or by dropping into the SU offices in the old Student Centre from 9:30 to 5:30, Monday to Friday.