All parents are carers, but not all carers are parents.
Together, they have a common experience of caring for dependent family and friends that does not fit the individualised model of university staff or students. Parents and carers’ working day does not fit neatly into the 9-5 model.
Time and energy are resources most of us lack, which leads to an irreconcilable problem. In a sector where high quality outputs are mandatory and time is hyper-pressurised, what do this majority group of carers do to cope?
Our emergent research findings suggest many volunteer their time to organise and form solidarity communities. Importantly, the way they are organising may help us realise Maja Korica’s aspiration of “a more humane academia”.
The context of parents and carers networks
With providers focused on regulatory requirements, targets, and measurement you could be forgiven for expecting that a “Parents and Carers Network” (PCN) would represent yet another example of “diversity management” strategy – contributing to what Sara Ahmed described as “diversity fatigue”. The instrumentalisation of diversity work has been critiqued in recent years as sometimes guilty of reproducing the problems of unequal work intensification (see the 2019 Athena Swan paper by Tzanakou and Pearce).
Metrics are prioritised to set benchmarks, identify progress and, purportedly, to make people, departments, and institutions accountable. The majority of PCNs we have identified so far are informally organised (i.e. grassroots, by members for members). Like other similar ‘diversity networks’ such as LGBTQ networks, they typically prioritise unmeasurable community-based support and knowledge sharing. But unlike most other diversity networks, PCNs is they can represent a ‘majority group’ within HEIs.
Why do they exist?
Given that parents and carers represent a majority of staff in universities, you might expect their needs would already be adequately supported. However, as the sector was entering the first Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, stark shortfalls in existing arrangements were exacerbated. All staff faced an unprecedented disintegration of the boundaries between work and home responsibilities, but this was especially unmanageable for parents and carers.
Messages circulated from VCs and senior management to assure staff that “good enough is good enough”, yet deadlines still loomed and pressure remained high. Amidst this tumultuous time, PCNs grew exponentially to offer mutual support and solidarity to their stressed and exhausted members. Addressing a fundamental human need for connection, empathy and care, PCNs operate against the grain of individual outputs, and may have the potential to change higher education for the better.
Our BA Leverhulme funded project aims to better understand the nature of these networks across the UK through critical, community engaged scholarship, meaning we will work alongside existing networks to learn from and develop a burgeoning national network that can bring together these local networks. A recently completed mapping exercise, led by Nosheen Khan, has systematically approached 115 UK universities to enquire whether a PCN exists in their institution, and if so, what its structure is, and how it operates.
So far, 64 have responded and 51 have confirmed some form of parent/carer/family network (or combination thereof) exists. We asked for more details and 40 institutions responded to explain the nature of their network(s). Their answers surprised us, not least due to our expectation that most time-poor university staff would only be able to maintain a network via formal, institutional support, and dedicated time allowances for network leads.
Of the 40 respondents, only four had networks that were formally created, or organised by the university. Though some benefits are apparent to this approach, including resources such as workload hours and funding, it is clear most networks organise differently. The remaining networks are informally organised, growing through the initiative and enthusiasm of their volunteer staff and student members.
This suggests that staff with caring responsibilities are not being adequately supported by their institutions and have taken it upon themselves to address this gap. In fact, the most common answer to explain why these networks have formed is that staff and students require extra guidance and support to balance the competing responsibilities of work and care. Clearly, despite renewed appreciation of the value of care during the height of Covid-19, a culture of individualism continues to promote the ideal worker paradigm where family life is checked in at the door and the work hat is put on.
Is the future humane?
We believe that our early findings of informally organised PCN communities show that these local and national networks could offer academia a pathway to grow a more humane, family friendly sector. This project aims to better understand how these networks have developed and what motivated their members. We will not shy away from difficult questions such as how diverse these networks really are, and do they risk being appropriated by the diversity management machine? We will be conducting further empirical research to learn more.
Parents and Carers Networks, as a UK wide community, can be an integral part of a more humane academia by normalising family and care within universities. We encourage readers to make enquiries about Parents and Carers networks within their institution.
We know some PCNs are only just forming so the time is now to be part of this. If your institution does not have one yet, you can start a conversation about starting a new network. And please get in touch to tell us about what you find.