Chris Ronan

No way to study with kids at home. Here’s how a unique program helped

For mature-aged students in regional areas, studying a university degree online can be challenging at the best of times. Add in the pressures that school holidays bring for students who are also parents or carers and continuing university study across this period can be incredibly difficult. 

During the April school holidays, the Country Universities Centre (CUC) Snowy Monaro invited parents to bring their children into the Centre to participate in outreach activities facilitated by a university partner, while they were given the time, space, and academic support to maintain their study patterns.

The Centre was buzzing. Across five days, kids were constructing bridges, learning about the environment, talking about what university is and why their parents were working on obtaining a university degree in one room, while their parents and carers were studying with the CUC resources in another.

Recent research has highlighted the need to recognise that older students – particularly women – are likely to be combining study with family caring responsibilities. For those who are mature-aged, their identity as a student is likely to take second, third, or even fourth place, to other more pressing identities – such as those of parent, carer, financial supporter, and paid employee.

In regional communities, these caring responsibilities that mature-aged students face are often compounded by other forms of inequalities when accessing higher education – such as being first in family, low-SES, or studying part-time. Additionally, students over 25 and studying part-time have high levels of attrition.

These compounding challenges are felt significantly by regional students across the Country Universities Centre (CUC) network, which offer campus-like facilities to any student studying at any Australian University. Each centre is equipped with high-speed internet, computers, workstations, and video conferencing facilities. Additionally, students can engage with academic, administrative and wellbeing support from staff within the Centre. The CUC is part of the larger Regional Universities Centre program, funded by the Commonwealth Government, to improve access to higher education for regional and remote students.

Of the students currently registered with CUC, 76% are female, 59% are older than 25 years, 51% study part-time, 45% are first in family and 63% are from a low-SES background. Regional students are also significantly more likely to be mature-age and studying part-time than their metropolitan counterparts.

Research by Stone and O’Shea on supporting women with caring responsibilities who study online has illuminated several challenges for this cohort of students. While online study makes it possible for them to participate in higher education and balance caring commitments, a significant amount of planning, good time management, multitasking, and dealing with family resistance is required for them to be able to persist.

One challenge that was identified in Nicole Crawford’s recent NCSEHE Equity Fellowship research, and across the CUC network, was that the school holiday period causes high levels of stress for mature-aged students.  It increases the caring responsibilities and creates significant difficulty for mature-age students with children to maintain consistent study patterns.

In response, the CUC developed a pilot program that aimed to provide consistent, uninterrupted study time across the school holiday period for parents in the Centre, while simultaneously nurturing the aspirations and understanding of university for their children.

The program consisted of five days of outreach activities for primary school aged children delivered at CUC Snowy Monaro. These were facilitated by an outreach team from a partner university and were grouped into themes of science, engineering technology, performing arts, and environmental conservation. There was complete flexibility in which sessions parents and children could attend, with some parents utilising the entire week, while others only attended one session.

While children were engaged with the university outreach program, parents were provided the opportunity to study onsite at the CUC with the support of the local Learning Skills Advisor (LSA). Across the week, the LSA provided a combination of 1:1 support for students, academic workshop activities, and “Shut Up & Write” sessions.

Many students reported that having this peer accountability and allocated study time and at the CUC without the distractions of their school-aged children was the most valuable element to the program:

“There is no way I could study with my daughter at home, the [school holiday] program has meant I can come in for a few hours, get work done, and then go home for time with the kids” – Parent

For these students, simply having the time and space to study without the distractions of their children was invaluable. Additionally, the outreach activities enhanced what the children understood about university.

“I felt less guilty knowing that [name removed] got to learn about university and do some fun engineering activities while I could focus on my assignment” – Parent

After participating in the outreach program many children had an increased understanding of why their parent came to the CUC to study.

“This is mum’s uni and this is where she comes to learn things for her job” – Child

The outreach program not only nurtured aspiration for university within the children but helped them understand why their parents were studying. At the end of each session, some of the children were asked about what they had learned or experienced. One session was focused on developing career aspirations:

“I learned about uni and jobs and when I grow-up I want to do uni to be a teacher like my mum is going to be” – Child

Bringing kids and parents into the CUC together helps normalise expectations of studying at university – especially for first in family students. This shared experience helps families to be included in the process of university study, while developing a shared sense of belonging and ownership of their local CUC. The program helped children to understand that the CUC is a place of higher education, and that university study is a ‘normal’ thing for people in their community to do.

The school holiday program is a simple idea that generates a shared experience of university between parents and their children. It highlights that we need to do more than focus on supporting the individual student, we must also support their families to share the university experience. 

It is early days, but programs like this are the start of creative ways to include the entire family of a mature-aged student in their learning journey. Increased understanding of university at the family level further normalises study and develops deeper support structures for mature-aged students to succeed.

Chris is the director of equity and engagement at the Country Universities Centre and has worked on national research projects as part of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and with the University of South Australia in Regional, Rural and Remote higher education policy, student equity, widening participation and rural student transitions. Chris is on the National Executive team for the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA) and is the Director of the National Conference for Regional, Rural, and Remote Education.