Pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees may help people improve their careers and help bring about changes in society, ranging from human rights protection, environmental conservation and gender equality to religious, racial and cultural solidarity.
But female students with children face particular challenges in their attempt to undertake higher education.
Research conducted in the United Arab Emirates in 2017 explains how the dual role of student and mother has added complexities as these women are required to balance their roles as parents, scholars and even career women.
Our latest research last year corroborates the finding.
Our survey involved 406 Indonesian mothers pursuing postgraduate education (master’s and doctorates) both at home and abroad. We found similar challenges for these women in having to carry out tasks as a student at the same time as being the children’s caregiver and homemaker as expected by society.
But we also offer solutions.
The challenges facing student-mothers
The student-mother challenges are similar to those faced by female academics or office workers.
These women face time-consuming and labour-intensive academic tasks and the responsibilities of caring for and raising children.
The tasks are even more demanding for those who pursue education out of town or abroad, far from their support system. This refers to support from the people closest to them such as spouses, parents, friends or extended family members.
The lack of support can result in mental and physical exhaustion because women still have to face masculine hegemony and patriarchy in the higher education system.
Under this patriarchal system, female scholars face discrimination in university jobs, placing them on an uneven playing field with their male peers.
The need for affordable childcare
Our finding highlights the importance of support systems to help a female student who is also a mother pursue higher education.
Our respondents reported that their spouses played a strong role in the success of their study. Their help can involve sharing childcare responsibility or participating in the relocation.
Nevertheless, not all student mothers are accompanied by their spouses. Thus, they encounter a daunting choice between becoming a temporary single parent or separating from their family. Neither option is easy.
To remedy the problems, these women can utilise childcare services.
However, the services tend to be very costly, especially abroad. The cost can reach up to more than Rp 10 million, or US$697, per month.
Our respondents report that most could not afford this cost as their scholarship allowance does not cover it. These women have to resort to using their savings or working extra hours to pay the childcare bills as most of the respondents’ annual family income was below 100 million rupiahs.
Our research recommends integrated approaches involving universities, scholarship providers and destination countries to help these mothers.
First, the destination universities need to ensure campus policies and procedures are mother-friendly.
For example, while most of our participants studying overseas reported their lecturers and supervisors were empathetic and understood the dual role of student-mothers, those who studied in Indonesia did not enjoy the same treatment.
Affordable and adequate childcare and mother-and-child-friendly facilities on campus, especially in Indonesia, are considered non-existent.
Second, scholarship providers need to cover the cost of childcare services and include it in the allowance. This will ensure childcare needs that are often unaffordable are met.
Providers also need to extend the age limit for women who experience career interruptions due to pregnancy and childbirth when they are applying for a scholarship.
Third, destination countries need to identify the unique needs of student-mothers, such as maternity and parental leave.
The universities, scholarship providers and destination countries’ governments also need to ensure these women can access childcare subsidies. They need to formulate standard and inclusive policies to reduce costs for childcare, schools and health services.
This integrated approach is central to the effort to create equality in research, higher education and policymaking for female scholars.
The authors want to thank all PhD Mama Indonesia’s volunteers who have contributed to the success of the research