Carers need more visibility in higher education

Carers often don’t recognise themselves as carers to begin with, the NHS notes.

The definition of a carer includes anyone who looks after someone who relies on them, because of an illness, a disability, an addiction or another problem of some kind.

Students and academics with caring responsibilities are a relatively new presence in higher education. For centuries, academia was associated with the white, heterosexual, middle class male, with no caring responsibilities or with a spouse acting as the main carer, as my research with Murray Robertson indicates. But despite the scarcity of data, surveys commissioned by the NUS, UCU and Carers UK all point to the increasing presence of students and workers who are also unpaid carers in higher education and other sectors. As a group, carers in universities are a testimony to how much academia has diversified.

In the Global North in particular, higher education has had centuries of being populated by white, middle-class men. This is not the case anymore, with women, Black and minority ethnic groups, mature students and working-class students all representing a growing presence. However, diversity is only one component of equity. Groups that had previously been excluded are now marginalised – concentrated in the institutions, subjects, levels of education, and posts which are the least valued and where returns are less certain.

We still don’t include carers

What’s missing is a cultural change in universities. Institutional policies and practices continue to be geared, in the main, towards those who aren’t carers. Widening participation, lifelong learning, and diversity and equality initiatives have shifted the dial slightly, but there’s been no radical shift in the structure of academia towards a more carer-inclusive model.

Timetabling policies, in particular, can create tensions for students and staff alike – as last minute changes are introduced or as the scheduling of seminars and lectures conflict with the needs of unpaid care work. Likewise, the mobility requirements increasingly associated with being a researcher can impact negatively on carers’ career progression.

Changes in the student population and academic workforce have not been matched by the redefinition of what constitutes academic excellence. This raises significant issues, because carers often struggle to balance the conflicting demands of academia and care work, and are particularly exposed to financial and health issues. The prevalence of practices and policies which treat students and academics as if they were free of caring responsibilities also hinders their retention and, in the case of staff, career progression.

Visibility for carers

How can we make this cultural change happen? As for any social justice project, bringing visibility to carers, in their diversity and intersectionalities, is a starting point. There is a considerable dearth of data regarding carers, including in terms of their numbers, let alone their experiences. In the UK, UCAS is now planning to collect such data and HESA should be encouraged to follow suit. This data should be collected in intersection with other identity markers such as gender, class, and race, so that a subtle picture of carers in their diversities emerge.

But a key finding from my research and others’ is that visibility can bring misrecognition. For example, carers aware of the link between academic excellence and care-freeness often hide their carer status which, as a result, comes to the fore when their private attempts to maintain their work and caring responsibilities have unexpectedly broken down. Thus, normalising care-giving and care-receiving should happen at the same time as increasing visibility. Some specific, add-on measures for carers are sometimes necessary but they are not the only solution to carers’ issues, and cultural change is equally important. For example, if commitment is associated with working full-time, the use of flexibility measures may harm those who deviate from the full-time norm of employment.

Mainstream care

A more efficient and radical step towards a care-inclusive higher education system would be to mainstream care in university policies and practices – in other words, to develop practices which recognise that we’re all involved in care work to various degrees. This mainstreaming would require assessing the impact of measures and policies which, at first sight, may appear unconnected to care, yet harm carers – my earlier examples of timetabling and the mobility imperative spring to mind.

Finally, there are considerable inequities between carers and non-carers as well as among carers, as my research in this area shows. Those who are more likely to fit the default figure of the ‘bachelor boy’ (i.e. a white, middle-class, cis-gender, heterosexual, male academic) are less likely to experience the tensions arising from combining care and paid work than those belonging to marginalised groups. Likewise, those with caring needs other than looking after a healthy, ‘abled’ child are the most likely to experience a sense of struggle and to receive the least institutional support. Thinking care-fully about university policies requires full appreciation of the diversities and intersectionalities of carers, students and staff, and of the shifting and multiple relations of privilege and difficulty they are experiencing.

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