Based on a literature review of research from 2000 onwards and interviews with a sample of women with children, the study highlights the struggle mothers face, particularly single mothers, in juggling childcare and studying, as well as paid work in many cases.
It reveals a mixed picture of the level of support provided by higher education institutions, and calls for more to be done to help mothers enrolled on courses.
Dr Clare Lyonette, principal research fellow at the University of Warwick's Institute for Employment Research, who led the study, said, 'Having been a student mother in the 1990s, I recognised, in the accounts of these mothers, the amazing struggle it can sometimes be. There is no slack at all.
'You don't have time to socialise - you're there to get things done and get home as soon as you can, to start your second shift.'
According to the study, which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, universities with the greatest resources appear to have better facilities and 'structural supports', such as an on-site creche.
However, student mothers are less likely to attend these institutions because most choose to study locally in order to manage childcare, their children's education and their partner's work.
Where support is minimal or lacking, mothers often have to miss classes if their child is unwell or if their timetable is changed at short notice. Student mothers attending these institutions are at greater risk of dropping out, according to the report.
Dr Lyonette said universities should consider the impact of timetabling on student mothers and suggested providing more condensed lectures, which would help to reduce childcare costs, and being more flexible when there are difficulties at home.
The study found there is a trend for mothers to do a particular degree with a specific job in mind, but often they are poorly informed about what those jobs entail when they apply to do the course. This also increases the likelihood of drop out, late into the degree or during a postgraduate year, because placements on some courses are 'very unforgiving'.
To combat this, Dr Lyonette recommends universities provide tailored advice about university courses, funding and childcare opportunities, and careers.
The study also indicates that while some student mothers who graduated did go on to 'good jobs', they tended to experience relatively poor social mobility compared to other female students.
Some mothers reported feeling exhausted from higher education and that they needed to devote more time to their family after graduating, so they put their careers on hold or went back to their old jobs. Others worked part time, taking jobs they could have done without a degree, such as becoming support workers rather than social workers or teaching assistants as opposed to teachers.
However, most student mothers described the benefits of higher education as beyond simple employment outcomes, citing improved self-confidence and self-fulfilment.
Dr Lyonette said, 'Student mothers tend to be really hard workers and are determined to get the job done so will work hard, in spite of all the obstacles. This needs to be recognised and supported.'
- Read the report at www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/publications/2015/ lyonette_et_al_2015_nuffield_lr.pdf.
CASE STUDY: UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN
The University of Aberdeen considers itself as being very supportive to student mothers.
It has on-site childcare provision, The Rocking Horse Nursery - which recently moved to new state-of-the-art premises, charges students reduced childcare fees and is flexible with its places. The old nursery building had capacity for 47 places but the new building is registered for 78 places to cope with growing demand.
Fraser Lovie, a policy adviser at the university, said, 'We are committed to supporting parents. Last year when we reviewed our childcare fees, we made the decision to put staff fees up slightly and freeze student fees. Students pay about ten per cent less as we recognise it can be more difficult for them to cover costs.
'Students using the nursery can also choose term-time-only contracts. And we also reserve childcare places for those students who may not have indicated that they wanted a place when they applied for their course.'
The new £2m purpose-built nursery opened at the end of last month. It is the first nursery in Scotland built as a fully certified 'Passivhaus', an 'ultra-low' energy building that requires little energy for heating and cooling.
This also means the building keeps a steady temperature throughout the day and has improved air quality, proven to benefit concentration levels.
The nursery is rated 'Excellent' in the BREEAM environmental assessment method and rating scale.
The design of the setting, which was influenced by academics from the university's School of Education and the nursery's manager Sarah Walker, who holds a BA in early education, is designed to encourage free-flow play. Two of the three rooms are interconnected and the baby room leads out on to the nursery's outdoor area, which includes a wooded area - opening in the spring.
Ms Walker said, 'We have a joint room for the two to five age group. There's a walled garden with a mini forest at the side. We're also part of the Wee Green Spaces Project.'
Ms Walker said that 65 children of staff and students were registered so far. 'We're hoping to be at full capacity soon.'