Mature students: balancing academic ambitions with adult responsibilities

A second-year mature student and parent spoke to Trinity News to share their experiences of parenting and student life, as well as the effectiveness of support services available to them from the College.

When students are depicted in the media, they are mostly shown as teens and young adults, on their own for the first time in their lives with little to show for themselves other than the hope of a degree and a growing pile of debt. However, this image does not reflect the diversity of the modern student population. In recent years, Ireland has seen increasing numbers of mature students applying to and studying at higher education institutions. As of 2020, approximately ten percent of undergraduates at Trinity College Dublin were mature students, and with a 20 percent increase in applications from those over 23 to the CAO in its most recent cycle, that proportion is set to increase. 

Despite their growing numbers and significance as part of the student body, younger students tend to have little understanding of the lives of mature students both on and off campus. Many mature students also balance parenting with their studies, a unique challenge that often goes unrecognised by students and College alike.

For Lucy*, a parent of five children ranging from four to 17-years-old, trying to balance home and college life has not been simple. Entering Trinity through the Trinity Access Programme (TAP), she has found that wanting to pursue her own ambition of getting a degree alongside looking after her children is difficult. The structure of a college day does not align seamlessly with the school day, meaning there are times where her childcare responsibilities and classes overlap. When it comes to having lectures in the afternoon, she often finds herself having to leave her children to their own devices while she tries to concentrate. “There’s always the guilt, feeling like I’m not a proper mother,” she says.  

Many of Lucy’s lectures finish as late as 6pm, creating a conflict between her academic ambitions and parenting duties.”

In 2013, Trinity published their Policy on Supports for Student Parents, Student Carers and Students Experiencing Pregnancy, supposedly to help in situations where parents are balancing academic and parenting responsibilities. It states that “College will make reasonable efforts to take into account the needs of student parents and carers and, where feasible, prioritise family-friendly timetables”. Despite this promise, the needs of students with children have slipped through the gaps. Many of Lucy’s lectures finish as late as 6pm, creating a conflict between her academic ambitions and parenting duties.

“It was really useful to be able to pause a lecture to put on the dinner, collect the kids from school and watch it later on.”

Learning from home during a pandemic has presented its own challenges. With children at home, live classes were difficult as she worried that “you could hear the kids screaming and playing in the background.” However, the flexibility which recorded content provided was a welcome relief. Lucy explains: “it was really useful to be able to pause a lecture to put on the dinner, collect the kids from school and watch it later on.” Hoping for a hybrid model of learning to continue, Lucy prefers the socialising and camaraderie of campus life combined with the more family-friendly elements of online learning, saying “It is easier to manage and balance when it is online.”

As in-person teaching returns, student parents will be looking for childcare to cover the times they are in college while children are at home, an expensive and competitive process. Trinity College currently has a day nursery for children from three months to four-and-a-half-years-old. However, places are extremely limited, and once children reach school age, the practical support dries up. Financial support is offered through the Student Assistance Fund which supports those experiencing short and long-term financial difficulties, while the 1916 Bursary is available for underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature students and lone parents. Unfortunately, according to many students, applying for these supports is often a long process that can be emotionally taxing, having to provide substantial evidence of your situation before your application is even considered. 

The Student Union also has a Childcare Assistance Fund, providing 30 euro over 20 weeks but this is only given to those students “experiencing the greatest need”, a somewhat vague criterion. For Lucy, the cost of childcare is too much to manage without support, and she worries about periods where she will require more childcare, such as school holidays during College term time.

At present, there is no one occupying the Student Parent Officer role in the SU, something that worries Lucy. “Not having the parent officer is impacting us because there are issues that need to be brought up, especially regarding the [school] holidays.” A 2016/17 Equality Fund project run by the former SU Student Parent Officer, Carly Bailey, saw fully funded places at the Sports Centre’s midterm children’s camp provided for student parents, allowing them to attend classes as normal, something which Lucy wishes had been continued: “It would have made College more accessible and meant I wouldn’t have to worry about the financial side of things, so I could focus on my work.”

The experience of College life outside of academics is another area where mature students and parents face unique challenges. Societies and events often are tailored to the younger student population, with club nights and events in evenings inaccessible to those who require childcare. The Mature Student Society provides a forum for mature students to interact and share experiences, helping to bridge the gap between an often intimidating and inaccessible social scene and mature students. However, the opportunity to interact with younger students with different perspectives is still welcomed by many, including Lucy. “The young people, I find, are very open minded,” she says, and despite her initial fears that she would feel like “everybody’s mum”, she has enjoyed getting to know them and hearing their views.

For students like Lucy who did not follow the conventional path to university, the opportunity to study at Trinity cannot be passed up. However, the difficulties that mature students —  particularly parents  face in balancing their responsibilities and financially supporting themselves through College, make the prospect of a degree in later life seem daunting. As the proportion of mature students grows, it remains to be seen how the university process will be improved to accommodate a growing and more diverse student population.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity.