I have wanted to be a scientist for a very long time now. When I realised that I had become a carer I was determined not to let that prevent me from achieving that dream. After many years in higher education it has become clear to me that the system is poorly adapted for carers and that my success in continuing through it was as much due to luck as it was to good planning. Access to education is a fundamental right that enables carer social mobility and allows carers to flourish. Or at least it can be, insofar as centres of education are willing to facilitate them.
When I returned from my third-year placement at a leading botanical institute, to the final year of my biology undergraduate degree, I was eager to finish and begin a masters or PhD. I was in a privileged position, having been encouraged into higher education from a young age and supported through the process by family and teachers. I moved in with my partner, who had been struggling to balance finding a job and managing their illness. Beforehand, they had just been my often-unwell girlfriend; quickly I realised they weren’t getting better, they weren’t returning to work, and they needed a lot of support. That was nearly six years ago, and though I am about to finish my journey in higher education, our odyssey is far from over.
During this time, universities have told me that applying to their PhDs sure was “brave”, but no, they would not be providing specific support for carers. That there must not be any post-grad carers, because no-one has ever asked admissions about their student carer experience. Lecturers have joked that my partner’s unemployment due to chronic illness is “convenient”. Students, staff, and I myself, have struggled with the effect of caring on my social life. I have engaged with university therapists about handling research project worries and home stress and I have often asked for help from my local carers’ charity. My partner and I have been regularly interrogated by the DWP. We have lost benefits and won tribunals. Unfortunately, throughout all of this I have been regularly disappointed by the support available from universities.
The slight troubles I have experienced are undoubtedly the “easy-mode” of the student carer experience. Expectations that culture and society places on women, BAME or queer individuals will likely impact how people view them as student carers, paralleling known institutional biases against these groups in academia. Any success I have had has been hard worked for, but I am not a self-made man. I got here with the support and resources of my and my partner’s family, with minimal institutional barriers raised against me. And yet, I have found being a student carer very difficult. Things need to change in order to enable carers to flourish in their degrees. Not for me, I am nearly out of the door, but for prospective students to have a fair shot at higher education.
That sounds like a lot, but it's not really for you - a carer who wants to study - it’s for those that can effect change in the system. Now that it’s out of the way, here’s some questions for you to ask yourself and the institution to ensure you get a fair shot at higher education.
- Ask yourself if you are at the right stage of your life for this. Is your mental and physical health in a good place? They will take a beating during a degree. All students go through this, but student carers have an extra challenge.
- What are the support services like for students with physical and mental health challenges? This is as much of a priority for you as the quality of the teaching or research. Engage with these services before you feel like you need to.
- Financially are you able to survive unexpected costs or loss of income? Do you have funding for the degree? What financial support is available, are they/you aware of specific funding for carers that may be available internally or externally?
- If you know who your supervisor will be, meet them, talk to their current students. Are the students happy? Do they hang out together? What is the professor really like? You are going to have to have a conversation with your boss about caring at some point, do they seem like an understanding person? What about the people you’ll be working with?
- Is there a carers group at the university and/or in the city/town?
- Is this the best degree for you? Don’t settle for any old degree. You have a lot to bring to the table from your life experience. Shop around for a degree that works for you and your situation, even if it’s not in the most highly esteemed institution, but don’t sell yourself short.
- Are you passionate about this degree? Make sure that you study something you're passionate about, that will be your main drive to finish it.
Any degree is more of a marathon than a sprint. The further you go in education the more that becomes true. You need to plan for long term resilience to make sure you get through. Fundamentally, I believe that most determined individuals are capable of excelling in higher education. It is poor institutional support for carers that causes dropouts, but we need to plan proactively to rebalance the scales. The issues raised above should not be barriers that prevent your access, they can all be overcome with institutional support. So, make sure you go somewhere that takes carers issues seriously, somewhere that will allow you to succeed, somewhere that will allow you to become a credit to your institution.
We need more empathetic people with degrees. I wholeheartedly encourage you to become one of them.