Why universities need to understand the value of carers
Chances are, if you were asked to picture an ‘ideal’ student, they would be young, have few commitments or ties outside of their studies and be able to completely engage with their institution. But what about those who have ties – those who are bound? How can the sector reimagine participation and engagement for these students?
It takes a lot of courage, will and determination to enter university with caring responsibilities; this could be providing unpaid care to a partner, family member (or members) or a friend.
These students should be celebrated and recognised, but all too often they are forgotten, or feel they should hide this aspect of themselves, with little (if any) acknowledgement of the skills and benefits that their caring responsibilities could bring to the academy.
Limited attention has been paid to students with caring responsibilities, who are often invisible when it comes to university communities, support services, financial support and acknowledgement of the challenges they might experience.
These students deserve the same respect, support and space as any other student, not just from a deficit model of what they cannot do in comparison to the ‘traditional’ student, but from an appreciative model that respects the identities and commitments they are balancing, the skills they have – and what they can do.
A delicate balancing act
Families have been described as greedy – needing a commitment of time, finances, energy, emotional labour and surrender of your own needs to their benefit – and the same has been argued of universities.
All students engage in a delicate balancing act with their time, resources and labour. This balance can become unmanageable when you also have caring responsibilities – this is not inherent but is arguably inevitable due to the systemic ignorance of care within institutions and the reverence of an academy built for a certain ‘type’ of person.
That balancing act changed during the pandemic for a lot of students with caring responsibilities; for good and bad. As universities are grappling with the post-lockdown world, it is critical that they learn from the engagement and experiences of students.
For some students with caring responsibilities, the lockdown was the most engaged they had ever been with their institution – no lectures being skipped because of the school run, no additional nursery fees for the time they would have spent commuting, no feeling of missing out on the social aspect of their degree because they had to take their parent to a medical appointment.
Not to say that it made things easier for all students – home schooling and furloughs caused significant stress for many. But for students across the world, barriers to accessing physical spaces, university time and the culture of presenteeism were eliminated.
Students with caring responsibilities may be less able to engage with their institutions in the way that universities would like, but little attention is paid to how the students themselves would like to engage and why.
Asynchronous learning can provide freedom to focus on family, self and care – all things that are natural human desires and responsibilities to balance. Students who provide care are preposterously under-represented in university processes, policies and decisions, and this is not for a lack of ideas, experiences or feedback they would like to share.
Belonging and inclusion
Rather than treating care, and the students who provide it, as invisible, we would like to see the sector continue to recognise these students – not just that they exist, and attend university, but that they bring numerous strengths and skills through their roles as carer that should be acknowledged and given space in academia.
The practice of critical thinking is central to academia – so why are we not thinking critically about what belonging means, what engagement means, what participation means and how we can include rather than pathologise students who do not fit the mould of a ‘traditional’ student?
We asked you to picture a ‘traditional’ student. Now we ask you to picture an academy shaped on the ethics and practice of care. That becomes caring (not greedy), that provides space, time and places that respect – rather than undermine – diverse student priorities and identities, and that acknowledges the determination, passion and skills of those who provide care and study at the same time.
This is something we as a team are very passionate about, being both students and academics with caring responsibilities ourselves. We have been privileged to receive funding from the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) to research the well-being and work, life and study balance of students with caring responsibilities.
We have worked with sector stakeholders, a fantastic steering group of students with caring responsibilities, and higher education organisations. We have learnt about ourselves, our own identities and how we can raise the profile, appreciation and respect for this under-appreciated group.
Amy Zile is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Rebecca Sanderson is a research associate and PhD researcher and Dr Rachel Spacey is a research fellow, both based at the University of Lincoln in the UK. The Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) is a UK research network funded by UK Research and Innovation and more information on the project can be found here or on Twitter @SmartenWhocares.