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Advancing equality and diversity in universities and colleges


Pregnant students, prospective and current parents

Ensure that your students are not discriminated against on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity.

The Equality Act 2010 introduced new protection from discrimination for students during pregnancy and maternity, by extending the protection that exists for women in employment to education.

This includes students who:

  • are existing or prospective parents (through pregnancy, paternity, adoption or surrogacy)
  • decide not to proceed with a pregnancy
  • have a miscarriage or still birth

It is important that you do not assume that all students will proceed with their pregnancy. Students need to be able to make choices and be provided with information without judgement or assumptions being made.

In 2009 the National Union of Students reported on the experiences of student parents in further and higher education. Meet the Parents: The experiences of students with children in higher education highlighted that while student parents come from a range of backgrounds, the barriers that they experience are similar:

  • limited childcare funding available
  • complex student support arrangements
  • inaccessible teaching practices
  • little or no time to take part in wider student life

The report also makes a number of recommendations on how to support student parents.

NUS has a dedicated webpage with information for student parents.

ECU’s 2010 guidance Student pregnancy and maternity: implications for higher education institutions outlines how institutions can ensure support for students in relation to pregnancy, maternity, paternity and adoption.

Legal protection for students during pregnancy and maternity >
Entitlement to benefits >

With the exception of students in receipt of a stipend, NHS bursaries or research council funding, students are unlikely to be entitled to maternity, paternity and adoption related pay or leave. If a student has been in recent employment they may be entitled to receive Maternity Allowance. In the case of adoption, the student may be able to apply for adoption allowances. More information is available at www.gov.uk.

Given that few students are entitled to leave, the term maternity, paternity and adoption related absence is used by ECU but our guidance draws upon employment law and established procedures.

All students should be allowed to take maternity, paternity and adoption related absence in line with the entitlements of employees under current employment law. Arrangements for maternity, paternity and adoption-related pay and leave should apply equality to live births and still births after 24 weeks.

How much leave a student takes will be determined by their personal circumstances, and the structure and content of their course. Students should not automatically be required to interrupt their study for a year. Instead ECU recommends that HEIs and colleges work with their students to establish a suitable return-to-study date.

Where course structure or content indicates the need for a student to return to study sooner than they would like to, the reason given will need to be justified in writing to the student. This justification should stand up to scrutiny by a third party.

While the length of maternity-related absence students prefer to take will vary, ECU recommends that, at a minimum, students are required to take two weeks’ compulsory maternity-related absence, or four weeks if they are on placement in a factory. This is in line with employment law, and is to ensure the health and safety of the mother following birth. NHS student bursaries recommend a minimum of 12 weeks’ maternity absence, but allows students to return earlier if they have approval from their GP or health worker.

If an HEI is concerned about a student’s health in relation to their proposed return date or course requirements, the student should be asked for their GP’s or health worker’s confirmation of their fitness to return to study.

Financial support >

Regulations on student financial support in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland contain provisions for discretion when determining if all or part of a student’s grant or loan is payable when a student is absent from their course for reasons other than illness.

When deciding whether it would be appropriate to pay all or part of the grant or loan, consideration is given to:

  • the reasons for the student’s absence
  • the length of the absence
  • the financial hardship caused by not paying all or part of the loan or grant

Students are likely to require support from their HEI if they want to continue receiving their grant or loan when they take maternity-related absence. Further information should be sought on the process for continuing payments from the grant or loan administrator.

It may be appropriate for students to apply to their institution’s hardship funds, but these are often limited. Many students will be entitled to government welfare benefits and grants, and these should be explored in the first instance. Unlike student loans, they do not need to be repaid. However, it is important to be aware that the interaction between student support entitlements and benefits is very complex, and students need tailored advice from their local benefits office or institution’s student finance advisers.

Assessments and examinations >

If a student is due to give birth near to or during assessment deadlines or the examination period, and wishes to complete her assessed work or sit her examinations, she should not be prevented from doing so.

In examinations, pregnant students may require rest breaks and may need to visit the toilet more frequently than those who are not pregnant. They may also require a more comfortable and supportive chair. Consequently, the student may need to sit the examination in a location separate from other students. HEIs may wish to consider the types of standard adjustment they can make for pregnant students taking examinations, which can then be agreed with the student concerned.

If a student is concerned about sitting examinations or meeting assessed work deadlines, or if she has a pregnancy-related health condition that is exacerbated by stress, she should be advised to seek advice from her midwife or doctor. If the student’s midwife or doctor advises against her sitting an examination or trying to meet the assessed work deadline, an alternative method of assessment should be explored.

If a student is unable to undertake an alternative method of assessment, or if she experiences significant pregnancy-related problems in the course of an examination or when undertaking assessed work, the HEI will need to make arrangements for her to resit the examination at the earliest possible opportunity or agree an extension for resubmitting coursework. Resits of examinations should be considered as the student’s first attempt.

In relation to paternity and adoption, students should be made aware of their institutions extenuating circumstances policy in the event of the birth or serious pregnancy related illness coinciding with examinations and assessment deadlines.

Feeding and rest facilities >

Equality law does not stipulate that breastfeeding and rest facilities have to be provided to students who are pregnant or breastfeeding. However, failure to provide breastfeeding facilities could result in those students receiving less favourable treatment. Institutions may also want to consider the provision of rest facilities, as students may experience fatigue during pregnancy, particularly in the later stages.

Many institutions will already have breastfeeding and rest facilities for staff and consideration can be given to how these could be extended to students.

Some students may want to breastfeed in public places, particularly if these are areas within or close to buildings and services they use frequently. The Equality Act 2010 gives explicit protection to women who breastfeed in public places. In Northern Ireland it is also unlawful to ask students not to breastfeed in public places under the Sex discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order (1976), although protection is not explicit. Institutions should be aware that tensions could arise if other students feel uncomfortable, for example for religious reasons, when women breastfeed in public. Where this occurs, the needs of breastfeeding women should take precedence.

Student accommodation >

Students should not be asked to leave their existing accommodation because they are pregnant, and should be supported in finding suitable accommodation prior to the arrival of their baby or prior to their return from maternity-related absence, whichever is most appropriate for the student. Given the demand for student accommodation, in particular accommodation that is suitable for families, students should be advised to consider their accommodation requirements in the early stages of pregnancy.

Where possible, priority for family accommodation should be given to existing students who become parents during their course. If an institution does not have family accommodation, support should be given to existing students to help them find suitable privately rented or local authority housing.

Institutions will need to ensure contracts for their own or contracted halls of residence allow students to end the contract early because of pregnancy or maternity without penalty. Where a student is in private accommodation, they may need support and advice on terminating their contract.

Given the growing number of older students and the correlation between age and pregnancy, institutions may also want to consider the amount of family accommodation provided when contracting accommodation providers or when developing new or redeveloping existing halls of residence.

Children on campus >

Some institutions do not allow students to take their children onto university premises or only allow restricted access, for example not permitting them in seminars, lectures or the library. ECU recommends that you review blanket bans of children on institutions’ premises on the grounds of health and safety, as student parents may at times need to have their children with them.

Students who are breastfeeding should not be declined access to university facilities or services because they are breastfeeding, or have with them a baby under 26 weeks old. Under the Equality Act 2010, such treatment could constitute discrimination because of pregnancy and maternity or sex. As long as babies are supervised at all times and any health and safety risks identified can be resolved, babies should be allowed onto university premises and, provided their presence does not disrupt other students’ learning, into seminars and lectures.