Students with parenting and caring responsibilities have always faced a unique set of competing responsibilities. With the relentless demands from study, housework, paid work and extracurriculars, to attending to the time and attention of their children – these are just the tip of the iceberg. While the juggling act of all of the above is already intense and challenging, this had only intensified during COVID-19.
Student parents once relied on family support or day-care facilities to better manage their studies or paid employment. Now, they must decide between falling behind in their studies, or potentially risking the health of their children and family by exposing them outside of the household during a pandemic.
Therefore, many parents are facing difficult decisions around whether to keep their children home from school. More importantly, they have to consider their own work and studies, as well as supporting their children’s studies and education – all with very limited support. While the struggle pre-pandemic was already difficult, the current situation has become near-impossible.
According to data from the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment in 2018, one third of higher education students are 25 and over. This suggests the one-dimensional stereotype of university students as school leavers doesn’t always apply – to say nothing of parents and carers under 25. Students of 2020 have circumstances as unique as themselves, and for many this includes parenting and caring responsibilities.
Western Sydney University has gone to some lengths to ensure its campuses and policies are more parent-friendly. The university has developed a breastfeeding policy and provides paid on-campus child-care. Additionally, WSU has responded to feedback from students by allowing a level of flexibility in changing tutorials that clashed with parenting responsibilities.
With 55.5 per cent of higher-education students in Australia being female, it’s worth noting the gendered nature of care and the pressure experienced by student mothers. As parenting responsibilities can present a barrier to education for women in particular, the university’s work towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality is ongoing. Despite these efforts, there are still some gaps in the support offered for student parents.
Currently, WSU staff have the option of joining the Engaged Parent Network (EPN), in addition to existing flexible work policies. Historically, nothing like this has existed for students. For this reason, Western Sydney University’s first Student Parent Union was conceptualised and birthed as a labour of love.
The Student Parent Union (SPU) is a brand-new student-led club that has been built by parents, for parents – and anyone who would like to support them. SPU is an inclusive club that is open to all parents and carers, not just those who are biological parents. It’s also open to non-parents who are willing to help the club achieve its stated aims. It is intended to be a space for parents and carers to support, collaborate and advocate for one another during this incredibly unique phase of life. Never has the need for such connection been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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