Substantial progress has been made in academic institutions across Australia in enhancing gender equity for academic staff and reducing barriers to career progression, especially for women and mothers. However, less attention has been given to students in this context, especially student mothers. This is despite a growing body of research that indicates student mothers in Australia and elsewhere invariably commence their studies with complex and significant obstacles to learning which include their role as carers.[1, 2]
Preliminary research and media reports further suggest that the global COVID-19 health crisis has exposed a lack of institutional support for student mothers and heightened their existing challenges. This paper seeks to outline the experiences of student mothers currently studying at university both before, during and after the peak of the COVID-19 health crisis in Australia, as well as better understand the gendered and other challenges they face in achieving equal participation and success in their studies.
This paper’s discussion is based on a case study carried out at a large regional university in Australia.
The study utilised two qualitative methods for exploring the experiences of student mothers at the University and this paper’s discussion and results are based on an online Qualtrics survey issued to student mothers at the University, as well as 3 online focus groups.
Both the survey and focus group methodology employed open-ended questions to encourage depth of response.
The findings of the study coalesced around several core emerging themes which this paper outlines and discusses, each of which reveal and evidence a series of significant gendered barriers to equal and effective participation in study for student mothers, including a number of key pressure points for this cohort: identity and recognition, time management, social isolation, wellbeing, impacts of COVID-19, and flexibility.
Significantly, the study further identified existing positive support models and staff behaviours and attitudes at the University that assisted student mothers in their study and helped to mitigate some of the gendered barriers they face.
Our paper concludes that the negative impacts of COVID-19 have been disproportionately felt by student mothers engaged in university study in Australia.
Our core findings and discussion suggest that the fragile life-work-study balancing act of student mothers has long suffered a lack of institutional recognition and support and that the global pandemic has further aggravated the complex circumstances surrounding these students and their efforts to engage in Higher Education.
This has had severe consequences for the study progression of this cohort. Our paper finally recommends that we need to include student voices in gender equity conversations and formal action planning to better support student mothers into the future.
 Stone C & O’Shea S (2019) ‘Older, online and first: Recommendations for retention and success’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 35(1).
 Chesters J & Watson L (2014) ‘Returns to education for those returning to education: Evidence from Australia’, Studies in Higher Education, 39(9): 1634–1648.
- Anne Jamison, Western Sydney University
From Western Sydney University:
- Dorothea Bowyer
- Chloe Taylor
- Tinashe Dune
- Erika Gyengesi
- Milissa Deitz
- Jaime Ross
- Anita Ogbeide
- Hollie Hammond