HE provider good practice briefing for students with parenting responsibilities

This briefing is for staff working in universities and colleges to support the introduction of the new UCAS flag to identify students with parenting responsibilities from 2023 entry. Here, we outline the common challenges for these students, share good practice around the UK to improve access to and success in higher education, and provide considerations ahead of the new question.

If you're a student, please visit our information and advice page for students with parenting responsibilities

If you're a teacher, adviser or parent, our adviser toolkit contains practical tips and advice on supporting students with parenting responsibilities.

Who are students with parenting responsibilities?

‘Parental responsibility’ refers to an adult who is responsible for the care and wellbeing of a child aged 17 or under. This may involve providing a home, looking after their health and wellbeing, financially supporting them, and ensuring their educational and medical needs are met. Different types of parenting include being a biological, step, adoptive, foster or legal parent, a legally appointed guardian, or providing kinship or other parental care to the child of a family member or friend.

Currently, there are no accurate figures for the number of students with parenting responsibility in the UK. In 2009, the Student Income and Expenditure Survey approximated this at 8% of full-time students and 36% of part-time students in England, with similar figures reported in Wales and Scotland. The majority of student parents are women (87%) and mature (89%), and over a third are lone parents.

Retention is a key issue for this group: the NUS found 60% had thought about leaving their course (rising to 65% for lone parents). However, despite the challenges, 75% reported that higher education had been positive for themselves and their families.


The UCAS application

To support the identification of students with individual support needs, UCAS has introduced a series of new questions into the application from 2023 entry. One of these questions enables students with parenting responsibilities to self-declare their circumstances:

If you select Yes, your information will be treated in confidence, to help the university or college provide the right support for you. It may also be used for monitoring purposes to inform and improve support for future students who have parenting responsibilities.  

Find out more about applying to university if you have parenting responsibilities

For more information about answering this question read our FAQs. 

This question is supported by extended FAQ-style help text to clarify why we ask this question, how the student’s information will be used, and the support they may be able to access by sharing their circumstances.

UCAS has worked with organisations including the NUS and Stonewall in the development of the question, help text and all related resources (including this good practice briefing).

Use of this question 

This question has been introduced to help universities and colleges connect students with parenting responsibilities to the support and information they will need to make the transition to higher education and succeed in their studies. 

This information is not verified by UCAS, therefore universities and colleges are expected to make contact with the student directly to discuss their support needs in more detail and check eligibility for any bursaries or other support packages. UCAS expects this information will be shared with staff members responsible for arranging any support or helping students through their application to, transition into, and success during higher education as required (e.g. the student support team, widening participation team, and academic departments).

Three key challenges for students with parenting responsibilities

Research by the NUS and others highlights three key areas where additional support may be required:

1. Financial

The cost of childcare, especially for part-time students and postgraduates, is a particular barrier: 76% report receiving no childcare funding at all. The cost of travel is likely to be higher for these students and, as their availability to undertake paid work is limited, they may find it harder to supplement their income. Accurate advice about eligibility for benefits and other funding is a widespread problem.

2. Academic

Because these students often need to organise their studies around childcare (and sometimes paid work), they may be affected by absence, lateness, and missed deadlines. They may have less time to access learning resources on campus, and courses requiring off-site learning or work placements can cause problems with childcare arrangements. As these students are more likely to have been out of education for a while, they may require help to brush up on their study skills.

3. Health and wellbeing

Juggling the conflicting priorities of studying and parenting can be stressful, and students report feeling guilty about the impact of their studies on their family, inadequacy about their capacity to fulfil both roles effectively, and a negative impact on their sense of belonging to the university community and/or suitability to succeed in higher education. There may also be an impact on their physical health, especially if they are pregnant.


How to support student-parents

Here are some questions for providers to consider in assessing how they support – or could support, their student-parent cohort.

To support pre-applicants

  • Is there a central contact with whom students with parenting responsibilities can discuss any problems or support needs before they apply or arrive? Are their contact details easily accessible online?
  • Is the support you offer clearly signposted on your website (preferably on a dedicated page) and through student services?
  • Are students with parenting responsibility mentioned in your widening participation strategy and plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England)?
  • Are marketing and recruitment teams aware of the support available to student parents, and is this flagged at recruitment events?
  • Are staff from academic departments aware of the support on offer for student-parents, enabling them to answer questions posed during academic presentation sessions?

To support applicants

  • What processes are in place to (sensitively) share information about an applicant’s declared circumstances with your student services team? Are all parties involved aware of their responsibilities and next steps? 
  • Is the information relayed to the student’s academic tutor? Are academic staff aware of the needs of students with parenting responsibilities, or would they benefit from further information or training?
  • What opportunities do you offer students to alert you to their support needs later in the admissions process (e.g. during enrolment), if they choose not to do so on their UCAS application, or if their circumstances change?
  • Do you check for references to an applicant’s parenting responsibilities in their personal statement or reference – even if they have not ticked the box?
  • Do you give applicants sufficient notice of interviews or auditions, so they can make any necessary childcare arrangements, and do you allow them to reschedule if they are unable to attend?
  • Do you contact students early in the cycle so they know who to contact with any questions or support needs, instead of after Confirmation? 

To support transition

  • Are there any opportunities for flexibility in timetabling for students with parenting responsibilities? Are timetables sent out in good time? Are terms and reading weeks aligned with school holidays, wherever possible?
  • Do you work with, or are you aware of, any local off-campus facilities which students with parenting responsibilities might find useful? Consider creating a list to publish online.
  • Do you contact students ahead of their arrival to provide details of health and wellbeing support services available through the university, and to encourage contact to discuss any concerns or needs?
  • What measures are in place to support students with establishing social networks and integrating fully into wider student life – especially those living off campus?
  • Do you have one or more student-parent support groups you can point the students to before they arrive with you?
  • Do you offer a buddying system whereby current student-parents contact incoming student-parents to discuss what to expect?
  • Do students fully understand what support they will receive before they arrive, and know what to expect on their first day and during their first few weeks?
  • Do you offer standalone student-parent induction activities?

To support ongoing study, completion, and future employment 

  • Is existing support inclusive of different ages (i.e. not just mature students) and genders, and different types of parenting? Do you provide students with the opportunity to identify as parents each academic year (not just as they arrive in their first year)? Are students who gain parental responsibilities during their studies represented in the support and information you provide? Is this all reflected in your messaging?
  • Are the three key challenges for students with parenting responsibilities (as outlined above) covered, or is further provision needed?
  • Are support groups or networks for students with parenting responsibilities actively, widely, and regularly advertised to student-parents?
  • Are support groups or networks for students with parenting responsibilities invited to feed into developments and changes to ensure their needs and concerns are represented?
  • What measures are in place to support a student making the transition out of higher education and into employment?
  • Are employability events and activities made available in such a way and at such times as to be inclusive to student-parents?
  • If you do not currently offer a discrete support package for students with parenting responsibilities, consider what support exists for all students which they might find helpful (e.g. hardship funds, extenuating circumstances policy). Could these elements be signposted together in one place (e.g. a dedicated web page for students with parenting responsibilities), or offered as a package?


Examples of good practice and support for students with parenting responsibilities

123 universities and colleges across the UK specifically refer to students with parental or family responsibilities in their 2019/20 widening participation plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England). These students are often conflated with mature students and/or students with care responsibilities, so the coverage of support may well be higher.

Below, we present a selection of good practice from these providers, reflecting the diversity of support on offer, for consideration.

Examples of ‘quick wins’

  • A dedicated web page bringing together all relevant information, including links to external support.
  • A designated officer or named point of contact in student services, for advice and support.
  • Regularly check the Student Loans Company’s campaigns page and make sure you are registered to receive updates from your regional SLC account manager.
  • Emergency supplies kits (e.g. nappies, baby food) available from student services.
  • Information online for students who become pregnant during their studies – including where to access advice and support, risk assessments, extenuating circumstances, and financial assistance.
  • Clearing ‘scripts’ give students an opportunity to share any personal circumstances or support needs.
  • Free, regular study support skills workshops.
  • Recorded lectures available online for those unable to attend.

Examples of medium-term changes 

These may require changes to current plans, policies, or processes

  • Parent support group (online and/or face-to-face) or society, which brings together students with similar circumstances to support one another, organise events, and drive improvements. This could be instigated at any stage of the admissions process, particularly to support transition.

  • Clear policies for supporting students with parenting responsibilities or who are pregnant, with checklists and step-by-step guidance for staff and students.
  • Clear, easily accessible absence policies and extenuating circumstances procedures, and guidance for students who are pregnant, or on maternity/paternity/partner leave.
  • Family activity days, social events aimed at student parents, and discounted tickets for events.
  • Help with the cost of childcare, and financial help over the summer holidays.
  • Early delivery of timetables to allow students to arrange childcare in good time.
  • Dedicated parking spaces/permits for those with childcare arrangements.
  • Breastfeeding and baby changing facilities accessible to parents of any gender, and buggy-friendly routes around campus – with maps.
  • Campus access policies that permit supervised children in certain areas, with toy boxes to keep them entertained, ‘kids’ corners’ in libraries, and student-led reading groups.
  • Help with fees for clubs and societies, to help address barriers to socialising and reduce loneliness.
  • Priority access to hardship funds and financial advice, including help with budgeting and benefits.
  • Changes to institutional exceptional circumstances policies to account for mitigating circumstances relating to child(ren) but impacting the student’s opportunity to complete assessment.

Examples of longer-term changes which may require planning and substantial changes

  • On-campus childcare facilities, including after-school clubs, school holiday playschemes, clubs and activities. 
  • Family accommodation on, or close to, the campus.
  • An on-site health centre which welcomes the families of current students.
  • Provision of tailored timetables for students with parenting responsibilities and/or earlier release of final timetables to allow for planning.