Project Student Mothers at Vienna´s Universities
Christine Urban (project coordinator), Renate
Egger, Regina Reimer
At the end of 1996 a single student mother contacted the Science Shop Vienna. Because of her precarious situation she was at the edge of giving up on studying. Requesting student students´ uniions, university kindergardens, contact groups for single mothers and further experts showed that there is strong interest in an evaluation of the situation of student mothers.
In 1997 and 1998 we conducted preliminary
research and in Summer 1998 we started interviewing student
mothers. The project was finished in March 2000.
Literature research; empirical investigation:
19 in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews. The
interview guide took into account the results of already
conducted research, but was mostly used, when the interviewees
obviously needed an impulse to speak on. Much room was given for
non-structured free narrative. This non-directive style
encouraged the student mothers to give different emphasis or to
speak about new aspects. Hence, some of the interviews lasted
The project aimed at covering all aspects of
the situation of student mothers in respect to their daily life,
their studying, their future prospects. Among others, the
following questions were of special interest: Under which
conditions is it possible to reach the final degree? Which
different ways to manage studying and raising children at the
same times can be found? How do they cope with difficult
situations? What aspects of the situation at their universities
and their curricula are important to them? What do they think
about the available childcare groups? What are the special
issues for single student mothers and student mothers who live
with a partner? What are their desires or ideas for improvement
of the situation of student mothers?
Several interviewed student mothers presented "studying with one child or more children" as a living model in which they combine two ambitious and challenging tasks - acquiring a higher education on the one hand and raising a family on the other - which furthermore allows for an excellent integration of both tasks. On the other hand, some interviews showed that student mothers can be massively overburdened by this situation. Then their studies stagnate and they risk the premature termination of their studies without completing their degrees. In order to understand in which cases the combination of studying and raising a family is a favourable model, and in which cases the cons overweight the pros, it is necessary to regard the entire living and studying situation of the concerned student mother.
Student mothers - like employed mothers - carry a twofold burden. It is more difficult to learn or to write papers when a child is present. And only occasionally it is possible or sensible to take the child along to the university. Hence, student mothers have to do considerable organisational work in order to piece together university and family life, and to progress in their education while caring for their child/ren. The organisational efforts even increase, if the child is still an infant or if there is more than one child.
It is crucial for the concerned mothers to finish their higher education as soon as possible in order to enhance their employment chances. Hence, we typically found that they were studying under time pressure. Learning for exams and writing papers were squeezed in between various other tasks. Nearly every minute when the offspring is not present, sleeps or looked after by somebody else, the student mothers dedicated to studying. Many of the interviewees studied de facto in the night and took on the mother´s role by day. The permanent stress can lead to burn-out symptoms. The efforts could not prevent that the graduation was delayed, because their studying was interrupted again and again by unpredictable events, like, e. g., a child falling ill.
In spite of the enormous workload, many student mothers sticked to the chosen living model: They appreciated deciding when to work seldom will be possibly in a job position, at least not to the same degree. In this respect student life seems well compatible with child care when compared to professional life. In the context of life planning, interviewees saw another advantage: When a women has finished the more difficult phase of starting her family not after but during her education, she can concentrate on starting a career in her early years and have better chances in the labour market than late entrants. In contrast to this model several interviewees thought it extremely unfavourable to wait until university is finished if a women wants to have children: after graduation it is a must to acquire practical experiences. In this phase many women are forced to choose between either having a family or a satisfying professional life instead of having both. Hence, interviewees felt that studying with child/ren indeed is intense in terms of workload, stressful and needs a lot of organisation, but at the same time it is estimated as an intelligent and practicable life model.
Following factors we found crucial for the
question, to what extent studying and child caring can be
Financial situation of the student mother: It is
absolutely indispensable that the student mother has access to
at least a modest but stable financial basis: If there is no
grant, no pension or no other continuous private or public
financial support, it will be quite impossible to study with
child/ren in the long term. If the student mother has to earn
the financial means for her subsistence, then her burden is not
only twofold but threefold. The time and energy the student
mother has to invest into her job/s she cannot invest into her
education. Progress will be delayed, graduation will recede into
distance more and more: the socially weak student mother is on
the slippery slope to abandon her education and to remain in
Housing situation: Single student mothers
searched for or tried housing situations that promise to help
them with child caring, e. g., living communities, students´
hostels, and renting parts of their apartment to other women
with children. An optimal housing situation can alleviate the
twofold burden of the student mother and thus help her to
advance in her studies. On the other hand financially weak
student mothers may suffer from housing problems, too. Some of
the interviewees reported, that they had to change their places
frequently, or that they had to live under housing conditions
that made it difficult or even impossible to study undisturbed.
Social environment: A student mother needs moral
support. It is crucial for her endurance and discipline that her
family and friends take her education serious and regard her as
a student. Unfortunately some interviewees report that their
studies were only seen as some kind of spare-time occupation of
a mother and housewife. Contact to friends studying with
children, too, may give most important emotional support.
Engagement of fathers: In quite variable degrees the fathers of the student mothers´ children took on responsibility and care for their children and/or contributed to subsistence. The interviewed single mothers more often were left without support. If the women lived together with their partners, they often felt supported but many also thought that the partners did not take their share of child caring and domestic work. If the partner earned the living student mothers reported that they had to ward off slipping into the role of a housewife and mother and neglecting the education. We had hoped to find more equal sharing of childcare when both parents are still studying, but in the interviewees’ experiences this was not realised to the theoretically possible extent.
If student mothers live in partnership with the
father, interviewees mostly feel supported by him, although they
perceived some discrepancies seen in the share of the parenting
Childcare support by family: It turned out that
the extent of support from the student´s family of origin had
the highest impact on the whole situation of interviewees. Not
only grandparents retired from work, but also fully employed
grandparents were committed to alleviating their daughters´
situation. Students coming from outside of Vienna may be
disadvantaged because of the long distance to their parents.
Institutionalised childcare: For the
interviewees it was not only a question if childcare was
accessible at all. The quality of childcare was a question that
mattered highly to them. Many invested much of their spare time
to find a really good place for their children. Not always they
were successful: they reported crowded public kindergartens or
private caring groups, unfriendly atmosphere or unusual
pedagogic ideologies. The interviewees refrained from leaving
their children in an environment that seemed suboptimal for
health and development and would search for better solutions.
Student mothers told us that leaving the child somewhere else
needs high trust, as their child was not able to speak well
enough to talk about events happening in external care.
University kindergardens often were appreciated, because they
are well adapted to student life and some of them are small
self-organised groups. Unfortunately there are not enough
places. The interviewees said that it is especially difficult to
find childcare for infants below three years.
Social climate at different universities and/or institutes: Due to their small time resources student mothers highly depend on professors and fellow students being cooperative and thoughtful. Professors need to be flexible when fixing dates for exams, consultation hours or working sessions and more tolerant to the physical presence of mothers in courses. In respect of the fellow students, student mothers easily experience social isolation, because their obligations do not leave time for typical student activities. For this reason it is important that fellow students support them by organising meetings for studying and working in a way they can attend them, and by giving them necessary information and lecture notes.
The interviews showed that there are some
institutes that integrate student mothers to a very high extent.
Some even allow that they take their children with them to
courses or field trips, and to fulfill their learning tasks
online or on the phone to a maximum degree. There is much
goodwill to spare the mother unnecessary travelling or waiting
time, in case heads of departments and deans are well aware that
it would take mothers an overproportionate amount of time to
organise childcare or take their children on a trip.
Unfortunately, some interviewees experienced the very opposite:
lack of understanding and support from the side of the teaching
personnel and the fellow students can create a severe barrier
for student mothers to advance in their education.
Ways of working may vary in different studies and impact on compatibility: The efforts that have to be taken in order to achieve an academic degree can be different in several aspects, and it varies how difficult or easily they can be managed by student mothers. The disciplines not only differ in terms of formal requirements but also in the way the related tasks have to be accomplished. To some degree it depends on the whole living and childcare situation of the mother, which ways of working are favourable to her, so only a very general pattern can be sketched.
Attending university courses can be a huge
problem, if the student mother has to organise childcare each
time. Excursions with longer duration can be difficult to manage
as well as courses that are blocked or take place on the
weekend. If courses in the evening are seen as desirable or
problematic, depends if there is somebody else who looks after
the child during sleeping time. Interviewees mostly preferred
whatever can be done at home, although it can be a severe
barrier to learn for major exams or to write a larger piece like
a dissertation or a master thesis, if there are no coherent
hours, where the child/ren are in childcare during the day: when
children are present it is not possible to perform with
concentration and without interruptions. From this angle it
might be better for students with double burdens, if the
demanded efforts are divided into smaller, manageable packages.
Under certain conditions combining studying
with raising children may be the most successful model for those
who want to acquire a university degree and to found a family.
An optimisation of the conditions would make it possible that
more people realize this life model. The results of the project
suggested the following measures:
- The high quality childcare, as it already
exists at several universities, should be expanded. Innovative
childcare should be offered on an hourly basis, too, so that
infants can be put there just for the duration of a lecture or a
- It is a must to provide student parents with
a financial basis, which also takes into account that the
education is delayed by childcare (in this study students
estimated this extension to at least 2,5 years). Scholarships
should not set up age limits and take maternity leaves and the
higher expenses for parenting into account.
- Appropriate residences for students with
children should be funded by the public, which should reduce
their financial burden as well as alleviate child care.
- A good climate for students with children at
all universities has to be created. Wherever feasible, working
and studying at home should be made possible, also with the help
of communication technologies. Appointments for exams and other
important events should be given flexibly and considerate family
- Service and meeting points for parenting
students should be established.
Preliminary research and experts interviews
were funded by the City of Vienna, the project itself was funded
by Oesterreichische Nationalbank’s Jubilaeumsfonds, the Austrian
Federal Chancellory, and the Austrian Federal Ministries for
Environment, Youth and Family, for Women, and for Science,
Research and Culture.
Evaluierung der Situation studierender Mütter an den Wiener Universitäten / Christine Urban (Hrsg.). - Innsbruck ; Wien [u.a.] : Studien-Verl., 2002 - ISBN 3-7065-1566-0
The book is also available at the Science Shop Vienna.