There’s been a lull in bloguctivity of late; normal service was interrupted by the arrival of little Sanako…
The birth of our second child has brought a few questions to the fore that have been part of a set of ongoing discussions I’ve been having with friends and colleagues for some time – that kids aren’t very welcome in higher education. Kids as in having them, that is. To think about this, ask yourself when the ‘right time’ to have children at university might be. Let’s say, like me, your partner can’t work for the time being and you want to go through the degree system and then work in academia. There are currently 395,780 members of staff in UK universities, so we’re not alone in this ambition!
Starting at undergraduate level, if you had a child and wanted to go to university, it might be easier to study part time. Or perhaps you could move to part time study once you or your partner had a baby part way through a degree. One problem here is that not all subjects are available on a part-time basis, so you either can’t shift to part-time, or even take some courses in the first place. Also, the funding system is less than ideal, in that, as a student, you’d struggle to bring in enough money to live on. You could take out loans to cover tuition fees, but the maintenance (living cost) loan system is currently only available to full-time students. Part-time work is unlikely to make up the shortfall. This situation is no better at Master’s level because there’s not even any funding to cover tuition costs. There are plans to implement a postgrad loans system in the UK, which I’ve written about here, but I doubt if the money would be sufficient to raise a family while studying. What if you’re lucky enough to get a doctoral scholarship? They certainly don’t hurt, as they cover tuition fees and currently pay £1100 a month. That’s possibly enough if you have limited responsibilities and are renting a room in a shared house, but certainly isn’t enough to feed, house and clothe a family. It may be possible to claim tax credits – social benefits – but you’d be ineligible for some of those because you’re not ‘working’ more than 16 hours a week, even though universities assume that (full-time) under- and postgrad students are working full time on their studies. Somehow, being a student doesn’t count as working. This is not the case in all countries, and in many, studying for a doctorate is paid as a sensible, full-time job, and therefore comes with all of the usual holiday, taxation, maternity and paternity leave, and so on.
Surely things are better once you’ve completed your doctorate? Well, yes, in that you’ll probably be earning, but there’s still a catch: there’s often a gap between the end of your doctoral studies and a full-time, permanent job. This tends to be filled with fixed term, often part-time research and/or teaching contracts. This is not the best situation to be in when you have a family. You could end up, like me, working two part-time jobs that add up to full-time hours. I’ve been lucky to get them, and doubly lucky that they’re in the same university. (In this time I’ve have been gaining experience and working to boost my employability, so by the time the contracts end, I might – might – be in with a chance for something better.) This is how universities roll in the UK, with staff numbers subject to success in winning research grants and the demand for degrees. Universities can’t (don’t want to?) have too many permanent staff who might be twiddling their thumbs and costing the university money if they’re not busy researching or teaching. This is the logic of the market, and private companies face the same kinds of challenges. It’s supply and demand, man. There is a whole set of arguments for and against why education is or isn’t the same as other kinds of bought and sold services. There isn’t space to discuss those here, but what is certainly true is it can make your employment chances unstable and that’s not ideal when you have a family.
So, surely the answer is to hold out on having kids? Well, perhaps, but why should you? And if you have children, why shouldn’t you have the same opportunities as someone who doesn’t? Employers aren’t allowed to penalise their staff for having children, so I don’t see why the university system does, at least during the training/early career stages. The funding situation as it currently stands is simply insufficient to sustain a family; it seems to assume that everyone goes to university when they leave school, and then stays on for postgrad studies. You’d potentially be at the permanent job stage by the time you reached, say, your late 20s. Perfect! But while this is usually the case in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects, it isn’t in others, where people study later, or often work for a number of years in between under- and postgrad degrees. And what if you can’t or don’t want to – through accident or design – wait to have children? Have you just taken yourself out of the equation? That doesn’t seem fair. The argument around tuition fees also weakens when you look at mature students, as you benefit less from the ‘graduate premium‘ if you claim it for 15 or 20 years rather than 40. This seems to have been the view that many people in the UK took, as when tuition fees last went up, the number of mature students plummeted. Is UK higher education familyist? Looks like it.