1. There are many challenges
“I constantly tried to reach out to other student parents,” said Ash Mohanaprakas, who took a year of maternity leave after giving birth to her son two years into her Portugese and Linguistics degree. But they were hard to find. The attitude was that “people come to study, not to have a child.” That’s as true for MBA students, according to Danielle Pearson: “In business…there are very few women, and even fewer mothers” – though Danielle stressed that pregnancy is not a “men vs women issue” but “a family issue”.
Freya Johnston, Director of Graduate Studies at the English Faculty, pointed out that the system often penalises parents. An academic taking maternity leave above a certain level loses her pension; though part-time DPhils will soon be offered, there has been no established route through a degree which doesn’t mean applying for deferrals “as though you were ill”.
2. …but that’s not the whole story
“I try to encourage my fellow businessmen and businesswomen to have children,” said Danielle, “because it broadens your perspective.” Ash agreed: “After having a son, I was far more ambitious. I had to be a good role model.”
“If you think you can make it work,” Freya advised, “you can. But it will be difficult. Your life will be much better in some ways, and more difficult in others.”
3. The childcare system is very hard to negotiate
Both in and out of the University, childcare services are hugely oversubscribed. The panel had some startling tales: of two-year waiting lists for the University service (especially unhelpful when you’ve just started a one-year course); of high and rising daycare fees; of colleges’ reluctance to provide childcare – something not made any easier by the sector’s heavy regulation.
As for the University website, everyone agreed that is out-of-date and unhelpful. “When you go on it,” said Ash, “you’re just doing random searches.”
4. An open and supportive community makes a difference
The panellists mentioned Wolfson, St Anne’s, St Hugh’s and St. Cross – which has an annual student parent mixer event – as especially welcoming. Danielle said, “I love taking my daughter to the business school, partly because it allows my classmates to see what it can be like to be a working parent, a student parent.”
What could us non-parents do to help, an audience member asked? “Babysitting!” came the unanimous reply.
5. There’s a real case for University funding
The BBC reported today that Oxford has raised £2bn of funds for teaching and research, the biggest figure you’ll find outside US higher education. Ash, who works for the University’s Development Office, pointed out that funding is directed towards teaching, research and student support. It doesn’t take much to see student parents as having a stake in all three. And the money is there.
Chair Megan Engel mentioned that MIT had put a lot of resources and thought into their on-campus childcare centres. Another chance for Oxford to copy an American success story?