The exact number of student parents in Trinity is unknown, although a survey conducted in 2012 suggests that the number is more than 400. This should give you an idea of the lack of general awareness about student parents and their needs in college. Trinity has no centralised parents service; its policy document on parents refers students to the SU and to their college tutors.
I spoke to Lynn Ruane, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s first student parent officer, shortly before she was elected SU president last week about the unique circumstances student parents can find themselves in. She made it clear that student parents have special requirements, and that college does not provide for those: “The support for parents whether that be academic staff or student is totally inadequate.” These problems also apply to staff with parental responsibilities; Lynn points to the gender imbalance in Trinity’s senior staff as an example of where the demands of parenting are a factor in preventing women from succeeding. Even if we support the men in caregiving roles, we have to acknowledge that women tend to lose out more from a lack of childcare services.
Like most businesses, Trinity is slow to move toward comprehensive childcare services for its staff, and for its students. The corporate attitude towards family is that you choose career or parenting, or balance both – but on your own time. Businesses cater for parents at their own discretion, not by requirement. But the difference is that employees are earning and have a chance to make that choice and pay for childcare – provided they earn enough, that is. Academic staff in junior positions are often not, and students without funding have to balance a full-time degree and full-time childcare. College expects students to devote their time to their degrees, but it ignores the special needs of this group.
This year, a survey was conducted by Lynn in her role to assess the support that student parents receive from college. Over 100 people answered the survey; seven men, 94 women and two who did not list a gender. More than half were nursing students and the next largest group was arts, humanities and social sciences. Nursing hours are demanding, especially since it requires work placement.
Childcare costs are not always the biggest concern for parents, but they do play a huge part: costs can be up to €500 per week for some parents. The Trinity nursery only accepts children under the age of five and is still costly, even with the subsidy. Its opening hours, from 8am to 6pm during term time, do not cater for evening lectures, and are even more problematic for health science students with placements that can start before 8am. Some parents also have to pay for their children to be driven to creche or school if they have early starts. This can cost up to €290 per week. The SU is able to financially support just five of the hundreds of student parents. Lynn says that if more funding were made available, childcare could be subsidised and services set up for children over age five. But the budget for student parent services has been cut this year, along with the student hardship fund, putting a further strain on parents. Lynn suggests that there are several low-cost and no-cost measures that could be taken to support student parents, but that this would require the college to be understanding of their circumstances.
Strict and unpredictable timetabling
According to the survey, strict and unpredictable timetabling is the largest concern for student parents. Nurses, who make up the biggest proportion of student parents, are required to attend most lectures and tutorials in order to pass. The policy on lateness, which often applies to arts and social science students as well, is to declare a student absent after a certain amount of time. For some courses, being even a minute late makes you absent. For parents trying to get children ready in the morning and facing unpredictable circumstances – issues with school, their children’s health, the doctor or dentist – this makes them much more likely to be absent. Having to attend every lecture and tutorial – and the stringent restrictions placed on changing your tutorials around – puts an extra strain on parents’ schedules. Aside from the hours themselves, Trinity’s reading week is a week after school midterms, meaning parents with children in school have to make arrangements for the time. Extra childcare or activity camps can cost hundreds, meaning some student parents are forced to take a week off college. More than that, students in health science and social science are sometimes required to take work placements outside of Dublin, meaning they could be commuting for hours or living away from home and family for the duration of their placement.
Lynn suggests that student parents should be able to move between tutorials as it suits their timetables, and that podcasts of lectures could be made available specifically to parents so that they would not lose out by missing the time. She also says that lecturers and teaching assistants need to show discretion and understanding when dealing with student parents. She suggests giving preference to student parents for choosing modules and placement options so that they can schedule themselves more easily.
Lack of centralised services
The fundamental problem is that though Lynn’s suggestions are good and doable, they require college staff to be aware of who student parents are, the problems they face and what they need. The college policy document on student parents suggests that if student parents make themselves and their needs known, college can cater to them by extending deadlines, allowing out-of-hours classes and treating supplemental exams as the first attempt if needed. But the reality is that the lack of a centralised service means relying on every lecturer to show this understanding. Even if your tutor is aware, there is no service that you can register with to specifically look after your needs. Students with a disability that needs to be catered for have the disability service, not only to give them one-on-one support but to represent their interests and raise awareness about their circumstances. Student parents have the SU officer now, but their limited resources make it difficult to provide much.
Without a registry and a centralised service, with student parents relying on different sources of funding and support – the SU, the hardship fund and each other – they have to support themselves to a large extent. In fact, most of the progressive initiatives for parents have come from the society or the SU. Lynn has received funding from the equality office for a midterm festival to take the strain off parents in February. ‘This will relieve some of the stress parents endure during this week trying to pay for childcare.’ She hopes other students will attend to make it a day for interaction between parents and the average student. Parents often feel excluded from the college social life, and Lynn wants to create events to correct this rather than relying on student parents to adapt to the difficulty. However, the continuation of such initiatives will rely on parents continuing to organise these things themselves. Though the college website lists plenty of resources for parents, most are disconnected from one another – TAP, the hardship fund, the SU, S2S and the college tutor among them. At the end of the day, the SU student parents officer and the society are the main resource, working to get support from anywhere they can on a smaller and smaller budget.
For Lynn, being the first is more of a benefit than a challenge, because it gives her the chance to pioneer a project. “One of my aims for this position was to ensure the visibility of parents within the college community and that will only happen with the support of the college as a whole,” she says. Awareness is being raised and projects funded, and surely there will be more improvement as future officers build on the work. But it looks as if the support for student parents will continue to come from the parents themselves. They’ll have to work hard to be recognised and understood by staff and other students.
Photo: Kevin O’Rourke