Student Carers in Higher Education

By Rachel Brooks

I have been studying higher education students with caring responsibilities for over a decade now. Over this period of time, although the academic research has grown considerably, change in the policies and practices that affect this group of students has been notably slow. Indeed, extant research has documented the substantial obstacles often encountered by students who have caring commitments to children, parents and/or partners. One example is the way in which this group remains relatively invisible in many higher education institutions because no data are collected about them. This contrasts with the effort made, in some countries at least, to ensure that robust data are collected about other groups that may be under-represented and/or face particular obstacles to study – such as those who are ‘first-in-family’ to embark on degree-level study ,and those who have spent their childhoods in state care (referred to as ‘looked after’ in the UK).

In our new book, Student Carers in Higher Education: Navigating, Resisting and Reinventing Academic Cultures, Genine Hook, Marie-Pierre Moreau and I have sought to bring together work from scholars from across the world, to document the contemporary experiences of students ‘who care’, with the hope of building momentum for change internationally. We hope that the various chapters of the book provide compelling evidence of the difficulties students with caring responsibilities still face, and how these are often strikingly similar across national borders. Indeed, several common themes thread through the chapters – some of which we discuss below.

Intersectionality. Almost all of the chapters of the book help to document the heterogeneous nature of ‘student carers’. Although such students face many of the same barriers, these are also often patterned by their other identities and social characteristics. For example, Xuemeng Cao’s chapter on international students outlines very clearly the particular challenges of caring for a child, alongside studies, in a culture with which you are not necessarily very familiar, and with support networks the other side of the world. Developing a similar argument, Christine Browne, Chelsea McDonagh and Colin Clark highlight the particular experiences of students from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds, who are expected to assume significant caring responsibilities within their own communities, irrespective of whether or not they are a higher education student.  Rebecca Cox and Michelle Pidgeon’s study of Indigenous students (in Canada) also highlights the importance of paying attention to the intersections of particular identities and not assuming homogeneity among ‘student carers’.

Looking beyond access. While ensuring that prospective students with caring responsibilities are supported in their applications to higher education, various chapters of the book argue that we must look beyond access and the numerical representation of student carers to consider more fully the nature of their lived experiences. Genine Hook, for example, draws on her own experience of being a higher education student with a young child,to examine the physical spaces of the campus. She shows how the location of the campus nursery – on the periphery of the campus – had substantial practical effects, in terms of slowing movement across the campus for those needing to drop their children there, as well as, symbolically, suggesting that the nursery was not central to university life. Emily Henderson’s chapter also encourages us to look more broadly at the experiences of student carers – in this case by considering the particular expectations of doctoral students. She shows how many of her respondents considered conference attendance a key aspect of their learning and development – as well as an important opportunity to network with potential employers – but how attending such events was often extremely difficult.

The chapters are also largely united in their call for action. This is articulated in various ways. Some authors advocate resistance on the part of both students and staff – and a rejection of the ‘care-free’ norms of the contemporary university. Others suggest that greater knowledge has to be developed of the lived experiences of student carers, and how these may differ between particular groups. Ultimately, we hope that chapters that make up the book will help all of us working in academia – or who have responsibility for it as a policymaker – to identify practices and policies that will bring about more inclusive, ‘care-full’ cultures.

You can access our new book, Student Carers in Higher Education: Navigating, Resisting and Reinventing Academic Cultures, here.