A New Student Parent in Cambridge

NB – Originally posted on my old blog, the misanthropope.tumblr

Earlier this term, a new student parent started at the University of Cambridge, on a graduate course. Like many of the student parents at the University, he didn’t live in college accommodation, but commuted from far away, since his family were based beyond the boundaries of the city. He’ll say goodbye to his wife and new infant son, catch the train up to the famous city, and immerse himself in study at one of the world’s greatest universities. How nice.

Except this student parent is different. Unlike many of his fellows, in all likelihood, he won’t have to worry about childcare. There will be people for that. The question of which school his new son will attend has probably been decided. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll have to accumulate crippling amounts of debt to support himself and his young family whilst he tries to advance his education. Indeed, it’s debatable whether he’s paying anything at all for it. He’s even got the luxury of a part time course, specially designed to take into account, among other things, the pressures of being a new father and wanting to be able to spend quality time with his family. How nice.

I’m referring, of course, to Prince William, who began a 10 week specially designed graduate course at Cambridge just before the start of the Lent term. Of course, this has provoked adulation and outrage in equal measure. As an (admittedly disillusioned) socialist, there’s a lot about the Prince’s presence at the University which I could moan about, but many of those arguments have been made by writers more eloquent than I ( though, if you’re interested, check out here for some interesting coverage.) Also, more to the point, I’m not in the mood for being another lefty laying into the future monarch. To be honest, the Prince’s presence at Cambridge serves as a good opportunity for us to talk about one of the most marginalised groups of students across the HE sector, let alone Cambridge: student parents.

Student parents make up a small but significant proportion of the Cambridge student population. Last time I checked, the University’s Childcare office had around 900 people on its mailing list (though it’s plausible that that number may have increased or decreased in the last year). The vast majority of these are graduates, though there are a higher number of undergraduate parents than one might think.

Like many undergraduates, I was essentially unaware of the existence or problems that might face students with children for most of my time at Cambridge. This changed last year, when I worked for the CUSU/GU Student Advice Service. Over my sabbatical year, my colleagues and I were approached by dozens of students parents for advice and support. Obviously, this is not out of the norm – it makes a lot of sense that if someone is trying to balance the rigors of a Cambridge education with parenting responsibilities that they may need additional input. But what struck me – and stayed with me – was the lack of support and understanding about the myriad of issues student parents faced.

As ever, money was the main issue. The University runs a Central Childcare Bursary, details of which can be found here. You’ll note that it is firstly only available to international and EU students; secondly, you’ll probably notice the line “These bursaries are funded by College contribution and therefore EU and overseas students are only eligible if their College has agreed to contribute.” Which would be fine, if all the colleges contributed – which they don’t. Far too many times, I had to tell students that there was no money to help them because their college didn’t think it was worth chipping into the central pot. Thirdly, the bursary is available to help with pre-school and and out of school/holiday care. Which is all very well unless you have older children – of which a fair number of student parents do.

Home students are encouraged to apply for the Access to Learning fund. The ALF, however, is a finite sum, and is applied to by students for a whole host of reasons. In my sabbatical year, I can’t recall a single student parent who received money from ALF (though obviously this doesn’t mean it has never happened). Additional sources of funding for student parents are strikingly few and far between. A quick search of CamFunds brought up the option of loans from the University. Loans – not bursaries, loans, another few figures to add onto burgeoning student debt.

One would think that a University as obscenely wealthy as Cambridge would be able to swing a few bob towards some needy students. Sadly not, it would seem.

The other issue which student parents faced – which is much more troubling than a lack of money – is a highly problematic attitude towards them in certain sections of the University. I should add as as sidenote that many of the individuals working within the colleges, the departments, and the University services are exceptional, hard working people who have done everything in their power to support students and their families; I say this not to sound fawning, or avoid the wrath of the University Press Office, but to emphasis how tragic it is that such good work is done when the overriding attitude is so damaging.

If I were to detail this problem to the extent that this deserves, we’d be here all day and I have an Mphil to write. Like many of the problems at Cambridge, it’s one of the institution’s conservativism. Many of the senior members of colleges are fondly caught up in their gold-tinted experiences of Cambridge, and have simply never thought what it might be like for a single mum trying to raise her kids on sod all money AND make it through Part II English. Others, I’m sad to say, simply don’t seem to like people who are different. I remember a particular situation from last year: I was helping a student parent, who had severe money troubles, a sickly wife and was having to choose between heating his tiny house or feeding his kids. I went to the Senior Tutor of his college (both shall remain nameless) to implore the college for aid. After I laid down the facts, the Senior Tutor simply responded: “Well, he shouldn’t have had children if he can’t afford to raise them, now, should he? You know your way out, Mr Page.”

Students unable to find financial support within the university are often shoved towards other, less viable sources of support. “If your College does not make its own provision for assisting with the costs of childcare, contact the CUSU Women’s or Welfare Officers for support,” the University Childcare website informs me. Yes, great, thanks for that. What is CUSU meant to do? CUSU of course spends a great amount of time and effort trying to improve things for vulnerable students, often with great success (no matter what the Tab might claim to the contrary) but things in this University move at a glacial pace. Even if we were to change some attitudes, or win some more funding to support student parents, it would be years before the results were seen.

Of course, the good Prince William isn’t going to have to worry about any of this. When you see how hard it is for student parents, you can’t help but feel slightly irritated to see the Vice Chancellor falling over himself to welcome the one student parent who (with respect) isn’t going to need any help, or be told he should be a student rather than a father. Should Prince William be at Cambridge? That’s a whole separate debate. But since he’s here, and isn’t going anywhere, can I possibly make a request? Will, in your free time, why don’t you make a fuss about this? Why don’t you call the University of Cambridge out on its student parent provision? Go on. Do it. Do something for those who don’t have a palace to go home to at night. I’m serious. A word or two from you would go a long way here. Maybe you could even set up a bursary or something for less fortunate student parents. I know you’ve got the cash. Come on, humour me. I might even soften my republicanism if you do.

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