x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

UAE colleges should find ways to aid young mothers

Tertiary institutions must examine means of accommodating students who are pregnant or have to care for children.

It's a question that is often asked when the discussion turns to ways of achieving the proper work-life balance: is it really possible to "have it all"? For young married women in the UAE who are trying to juggle university study with pregnancy and motherhood, the answer is a qualified maybe.

Many Emiratis are in this situation as it is still traditional here to marry at a relatively young age - and that is not something that should be discouraged by the inflexibility of universities and colleges, as can happen at the moment. The nation needs to maintain its birth rate, and it also requires highly educated women in the workforce.

According to official statistics, about 71 per cent of the UAE's university student population is female. Yet many institutions are not equipped to cope with students who are pregnant or have to care for young children. As The National reports on today's Focus page, some universities allow mothers of newborns only a one-week break from classes, and few institutions offer adequate on-site childcare.

One 23-year-old mother said she had been given a warning by her university administration when her grades slipped after her son became ill. She was told that two further warnings would have resulted in her expulsion. No accommodation had been made for her status as the parent of three young children.

Those women who do want to combine motherhood and their tertiary studies have to rely on the support of their husbands and extended families, and need access to quality childcare, often in the form of domestic help. But this involves a lot of planning, and expense, and may not be possible or practical in every case. Some women have spouses and families who are unable to assist, and some may not be able to afford a nanny.

Of course, academic standards should not be relaxed. But universities and colleges should acknowledge the issue and search out ways to show more flexibility in catering for the needs of students who are pregnant or new mothers.

Among measures that deserve consideration are on-campus childcare facilities, supplemental online courses, time extensions on assignments, giving mothers the ability to defer or restructure their courses, and rescheduling exams in the event of a family emergency.

Children - and more women in the workforce - are key to the UAE's future, so making life easier for female students with families must be a priority.