A recent news report about female postgraduates getting married and having babies while in school to ease their entry into the job market has stirred up debate over whether students should be starting families before completing their degrees.
While official figures on postgraduate mothers are unavailable, it is beyond doubt that many colleges and universities in China have witnessed an increase in the number of postgraduate mothers.
Among the 10,000 postgraduate students at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, more than 100 gave birth to their children while at school, said a teacher in the university’s family planning office surnamed Zhao.
“Ten years ago, there were fewer than 10 students who would do so,” Zhao said.
A youth league teacher at a university in Beijing told Beijing Youth Daily that in recent years, there have been dozens of postgraduates applying to have babies in school. “It used to happen to doctoral students, but more and more postgraduates and even undergraduates have been doing the same.”
In 2007, China banned schools from expelling students for being pregnant if they were married. The credit system adopted by most domestic universities also granted them the opportunity to temporarily suspend study for up to two years.
For many postgraduates, having a baby before starting a career is not just about starting a family – it’s also a shrewd career move.
Under the new Labor Law, mothers are entitled to fully paid maternity leave for up to six months after they give birth. Employers who hire a young mother are spared that cost. Most employers favor candidates who won’t require maternity leave.
“Apart from employment pressure, some female postgraduates get pregnant and have babies simply because they have ample leisure time to do so after school,” said Ye Xianfa, a professor at the School of Education in Hubei University.
In a survey by China Youth Daily, fewer than 25 percent of respondents opposed having a child at school. In fact, many said it as a good idea.
In an editorial by People’s Daily, the idea of postgraduate students having babies at school was described as ‘embarrassing.’ “Instead of giving graduates more bargaining power in negotiating with their future employers by granting them intellectual competence, Chinese higher education forces students to gain advantage by settling their maternity issues. Postgraduate education contributes nothing to a postgraduate’s career path.”
The financial challenges of being a parent in grad school are not to be ignored. At present, the state-funded medical service for postgraduates does not include maternity insurance. “In cities like Beijing, you cannot afford the cost of raising a child without sufficient financial abilities,” a 7-month pregnant postgraduate told Beijing Youth Daily. She has decided to go back home and rely on her parents while preparing to give birth.
Unlike many Western graduate parents who rely on teacher assistant or research assistant stipends, most Chinese student parents count on their own parents or in-laws to assume the burden of expenses in raising a child.
China News Net interviewed a postgraduate mother named Fang Ni who said that without maternity insurance even prenatal care can be a huge financial burden – not to mention postnatal services like babysitting, baby formula, diapers and clothing.
We could never afford having a child were it not for my in-law’s financial support, she said.
The time and energy required to raise children within the world of academia is another issue. According to the Beijing Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, to complete newborn babies’ household registration formalities, non-local postgraduate mothers are required to return to their hometowns to register their babies.
Xiao Shan (pseudonym), a newly graduated doctor of literature, spent six years studying for her doctoral degree.
“I gave birth to my daughter at school. But she gets sick very often. I’ve had to take good care of her while continuing my studies. It often drives me crazy. I used to think that being a mother at school wouldn’t be hard with help of my in-laws, but the fact is that I couldn’t focus – not on being a mother or being a student.”
Pang Yiying, a postgraduate mother interviewed by China Youth Daily, suffered from the double burden of raising a newborn baby and dealing with her professor’s dissatisfaction over her performance.
Even with more and more postgraduate mothers in Chinese colleges and universities, students having babies remains a sensitive topic in most domestic university campuses. A survey by Beijing Youth Daily showed that some postgraduate mothers still have to deal with their tutors’ fury after breaking the unexpected news to their tutors.
But in many schools in the Americas and Europe, student pregnancy and maternity are accepted and protected. Established in 2001 by seven UK higher education institutions, the Equality Challenge Unit aims to cover equality and diversity issues for students by stipulating that all higher education institutions must support pregnant students with legal protection, medical care, accommodations and breastfeeding and rest facilities.
Many UK universities have announced a full set of guiding principles for their pregnant students on their websites, including the University of Sheffield and the University College London.
Most European universities also have a family resource center to make the university community a more family friendly environment. The daily job of staff in the centers is to help pregnant students to arrange childcare, apply for financial aid and meet other student parents.
China did not lift its prohibition on graduate students having babies until 2007. It’s little surprise that the country’s universities remain decades behind their international peers in their support of pregnant students.