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Who cares about the carers?

Rebecca Sanderson and Amy Zile call on universities to harness the skills, experiences, commitment and motivation of student carers and parents
This article is more than 1 year old

Rebecca Sanderson is a Research Associate within the Eleanor Glanville Institute at the University of Lincoln

Amy Zile is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of East Anglia

“There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.” These words, spoken by former First Lady Rosslyn Carter, perfectly articulate the importance of caregiving in the human experience.

We all need to give and receive care at some point in our lives. Yet as Marie-Pierre Moreau, Rachel Brooks, Kathleen Lynch and other researchers have argued, universities are imagined as a care-less space filled with care-free scholars and learners.

Students with caring responsibilities face a range of problems generated by this care-less environment.

Caring responsibilities include:

  • Caring for a biological, adopted or foster child or children as a lone or co-parent
  • Providing unpaid care to a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their illness, frailty, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction and cannot cope without that support.

Some people provide care for both children and adults, known as “sandwich” or “multigenerational” caregiving.

Despite recent improvements to data collection on student carers the number of staff and students providing these kinds of care while working or studying is currently uncertain.

Challenges facing caregiving students

Our research project Who Cares, sponsored by the student mental health network SMARTEN and informed by a steering group of students with caring responsibilities highlights some of these challenges:

  • Late issue of timetables makes arranging alternative care difficult or impossible.
  • Lack of flexibility around attendance and assignment deadlines make managing the inevitable care crises we must respond to (sick children, emergency medical appointments) even harder.
  • Universities assume that students can simply pass on their caring responsibilities to others to fit in with university timetables and deadlines but help with care is not easily come by these days.
  • The cost of childcare is rising and there is a serious shortage of nursery and childminder places in some areas.
  • Social care services are struggling with increasing demand and diminishing resources.
  • Some carers and parents need or want to take the responsibility for providing care themselves- care is, after all, primarily a relational, not a transactional act and paid carers are not always a viable option.

Participants in our research shared their struggles to balance competing commitments to their studies and loved ones, often sacrificing their already limited leisure time, social activities and time for self-care to meet these demands.

Student carers and parents often find themselves in a precarious situation, reliant on sympathetic lecturers and support staff to help them to navigate a system and culture which doesn’t recognise or accommodate their circumstances or skills.

Many participants spoke of the invisibility of care in their university which makes it harder to reach out for help. Others felt pressure to conceal their caring commitments over concerns about being judged as less committed or less reliable than students without these commitments. As one student parent told us:

I just wish I wasn’t sometimes meant to feel guilty or inferior, as if having decided to study was a foolish thing given my caring circumstances…It’s not a level playing field.

Although we identified pockets of good practice overall there was limited evidence that UK universities actively address the needs of student carers and parents through consistently robust policy and practice. The risks of these stressors and the lack of support for these students’ mental health and social wellbeing are clear.

Towards a care-ful university?

Jim Dickinson’s recent article highlights the increasing numbers of international students arriving to study in the UK with dependents.

International students with dependents can face even greater difficulties since many are less familiar with the childcare options available and may not be able to rely on extended family or other informal sources of support to help them as they navigate the early weeks of living and studying in an unfamiliar culture and environment.

Shortages of local accommodation and visa compliance rules around attendance make securing the flexibility to study while parenting fraught with stress. It is not difficult to understand how these circumstances force some international students to use the informal and potentially unsuitable care arrangements described in Jim’s article.

The difficulties facing student carers and parents are not inevitable and we urge universities to consider the many benefits of centring the needs of these students who bring so much to higher education.

Participants in our research described the strengths their care practices brought to their studies. These included inter-personal skills like empathy and compassion, time management, self-belief, pride, determination and a sense of perspective.

It is clear that care is not just a burden to be managed, but a source of strength and motivation for many. As one person told us, caregiving is a privilege as well as a responsibility, a practice which “comes out of love”.

Our challenge to the higher education sector is to consider the intersectionality of care to think beyond widening participation and equality agendas which only recognise home students and protected characteristics.

We echo Marie-Pierre Moreau’s call to mainstream care in university policies and practices and we must include the provision of suitable support for international students with dependents as an urgent priority.

If we embrace the rich skills, experiences, commitment and motivation of student carers and parents from the UK and abroad and celebrate their contribution to higher education we can begin to build care-ful universities for the benefit of all.

One response to “Who cares about the carers?

  1. Rebecca and Amy, my name is Knut and I’m a GP and Honorary Senior Lecturer at Bristol Uni, and a health information app developer. This is an excellent and much needed post! Thank for highlighting the challenges for student carers and the need for universities to embrace them. It’s great to see that you also explore the particulare needs and challenges of international students. We recently launched a free support app for young carers (the Young Carers Support App), which has a page for students. It would be great to get your input into developing this page further if you’re interested. Feel free to email me if you like to discuss this. Thanks and best wishes, Knut

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