Learners who are parents can be left hundreds of pounds out of pocket owing to a support system that is unfit for purpose, student leaders say, as a new report calls for a government review of the financial support system for those with caring responsibilities.
Student bodies also said that new guidance insisting on 100 per cent attendance for those receiving bursaries disadvantaged learners with children, branding the policy “infantilising”.
The report, from NUS Scotland, calls on colleges to go further to support student-parents more generally – for example, by providing basics such as breastfeeding areas, nurseries and baby-changing facilities.
Institutions should also collect data on student-parents, so that they can devise policies to support them, the report adds.
According to NUS Scotland, mature students on HE courses – many of whom are parents – are presumed by the benefits authorities to have taken out a student loan even if they have not. This presumed “income” will count against any state benefits they receive.
In FE colleges, students can be caught in a double trap, as they may not qualify for a bursary and could find that they are better off on benefits than they would be taking up a college course.
Emily Beever, women’s officer for NUS Scotland, said: “Respondents told us how the current support system isn’t fit for purpose, leaving them out of pocket by hundreds of pounds each month, and facing a choice between taking on huge debt to access education and not going to college or university in order to retain their child benefits.”
The report authors raise particular concerns over students being at risk of losing bursary support if their parental responsibilities lead to their attendance dropping – for instance, if a child falls ill.
From 2016-17, students will be required to attend 100 per cent of “planned class hours” to retain their bursary, although there will be some allowance for “self-certified absence”, the report says.
In some Scottish further and higher education institutions, parents make up as much as 20 per cent of the student cohort. Around 20 per cent of these learners have three or more children, creating additional pressures, and more than half have children between the ages of 1 and 5.
Ms Beever said that while the report raised serious problems for all students, these would often be more acute for college students, particularly those in FE.
“For FE students, we already know that student support budgets are overstretched and underfunded – not just their bursary budgets, but also those for childcare,” she said. “Added to that we have an infantilising policy that puts a 100 per cent attendance requirement on students before they can access funds – a policy that only FE students are subject to, and will hit student-parents the hardest…due to the need for flexibility that comes with childcare responsibilities.”
As well as calling for improvements to the system, the report also highlights good practice across the sector, including at West Lothian College, which has provision for bursary payments for up to six weeks of maternity leave and two weeks of paternity leave.
About four in 10 student-parents said that they had experienced some flexibility related to attendance, while about a quarter said that their institution had been flexible with regard to exams and coursework.
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that her organisation was fully supportive of measures to help student-parents in colleges. Many colleges already provided a wide range of facilities and financial assistance for childcare costs, she added.
“Helping parents to gain skills and qualifications is a vital part of the college offer,” Ms Struthers said. “There are, however, a wide range of issues to consider in this context, such as timetabling, where the provision of childcare is best provided and the hours that childcare is funded for.”
The Scottish Funding Council said that the decision to ask for 100 per cent attendance for students to receive bursaries had followed the recommendations of the Student Support Review Group.
A spokesperson said that while the body would ask for full attendance, it would permit authorised absences, including self-certified absence. He added: “Unexpected caring responsibilities, such as the illness of a child, are specifically mentioned and colleges are asked to take into account the student’s wider circumstances.”