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You are reading: Supporting carers to succeed in Australian higher education

Lisa Andrewartha and Andrew Harvey

Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research
La Trobe University

Executive summary

Australians who care for people with a disability, illness, or a broader need often embody many of the qualities sought by universities. In providing unpaid labour to support family members and friends, carers typically demonstrate resilience, selflessness, and a commitment to societal health, wellbeing, and cohesion. Provision of this critical support is often required while simultaneously managing high demands on time and limited financial resources (ABS 2018a, 2018b). Young carers in particular have been identified as holding relatively low levels of education (Department of Social Services [DSS], 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges for carers. Collectively, evidence suggests both a need and an opportunity for universities to develop specific policies to attract and support those who care for others.

Despite the large number of carers, their distinctive characteristics, and their educational challenges, little research has been conducted on carer access to, and achievement within, Australian higher education. To address this gap, we sought to establish the first major evidential base for carers in Australian higher education. Consistent with the peak national body, we define carers as people who provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, an alcohol or other drug issue, or an older person with care needs (Carers Australia, 2019). This project explores the motivations, perceived challenges, and self-identified strengths of student carers. Our analysis is based on a national survey of student carers and a desktop review of related institutional policy and practice. The research was conducted by La Trobe University, in collaboration with Carers Victoria, and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Our report contributes new insights to better support student carers to succeed at university and beyond.

Through our national survey, we found student carers were highly motivated to succeed in higher education. Student carers identified a range of skills developed through their caring roles that were beneficial to themselves and their peers at university. These skills include time management, empathy, compassion and patience, as well as specific expertise with relevance to areas of study, including nursing skills and knowledge of disabilities. Carers also improved the broader student experience by sharing different perspectives, advocating for students, and providing direct assistance with coursework. Despite these strengths, juggling caring and study produced considerable time pressure, financial hardship, and lower levels of wellbeing compared with their non-caring peers. Circumstances were often made more difficult by the rigidity of course structures and study requirements.

We found that the COVID-19 pandemic caused additional challenges for student carers, including major disruptions to household and study arrangements. As a result of the crisis, caring responsibilities increased, mental health was negatively affected, and student carers found it more difficult to do well at university. A substantial proportion of student carers withdrew from subjects and reduced their study load during the pandemic.

Our desktop review of publicly available information on Australian university websites revealed support for student carers in higher education to be limited and inconsistent. Few universities had targeted support measures in place for this group. Student carers highlighted a range of initiatives that could promote their success, including targeted scholarships or bursaries, and increased flexibility around study arrangements, special consideration, timetabling, and placements.

We found that a major barrier to increased support for student carers was the lack of data collection at the institutional, state, and national levels. Without reliable data, the size and nature of the student carer population remains undetermined and there is no empirical evidence of access, success, or outcomes for this group. It would be beneficial to be able to systematically identify carers at application or enrolment.

Another notable finding was that a quarter of student carers never disclosed their carer status to anyone at university. This trend leaves many student carers invisible and makes it more difficult to provide appropriate and timely support where required. Among the most common reasons for not disclosing carer status were never being asked and seeing no benefit to disclosure. It is likely some carers also feared being stigmatised and/or defined by their caring role. These findings highlight the importance of increasing awareness and understanding of carers within the university community.

Further research is needed to identify, support, and monitor student carers. It remains crucial to listen to the voice of student carers to obtain a richer understanding of their needs and experiences at all stages of the student lifecycle. Opportunities exist to directly consult with carers in the design of changes and improvements to support initiatives. Carers are an asset in higher education due to their many strengths and varied experiences, yet effective support and flexibility is lacking. There are clear grounds to establish student carers as a priority group within Australian higher education.

Recommendations

Higher education institutions

  1. Collect and report on student carer data at the time of application or enrolment, including geo-demographics, so that targeted support can be offered and progress monitored. As some carers may not immediately identify with the term ‘carer’, it is useful to define the nature and scope of the role. This work could inform potential subsequent reporting of student carer data through the Higher Education Information Management System (HEIMS).
  2. Promote institutional awareness and recognition of the unique strengths and challenges of student carers through internal communication strategies and professional development activities, which harness the voices of student carers themselves.
  3. Extend traditional university outreach activities beyond secondary schools to community groups and networks that serve carers.
  4. Encourage transitions from TAFE, and participation in enabling programs and foundation studies where needed to increase preparedness for university study, especially for those transitioning to university later in life.
  5. Develop contextual admissions schemes that recognise the strengths and qualities of carers and their contributions to family and community.
  6. Advocate, mobilise and coordinate resources and expertise to support student carers through peak bodies such as the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia (EPHEA). This work could include good practice guidelines for the higher education sector, co-developed with student carers.
  7. Consider flexible study and assessment arrangements to increase attendance and engagement for student carers, including preferential access to university timetables, accessible placements, and streamlined special consideration processes. A range of measures could be combined in the form of learning access plans and/or other means of prioritisation.
  8. Introduce and publicise a range of targeted financial support measures for student carers, including tuition fee waivers and cost-of-living scholarships for those most in need.
  9. Encourage student carers to disclose their carer status at the time of application or enrolment and provide these students with information about enrichment opportunities (e.g. leadership, mentoring) and institutional support (e.g. financial assistance, disability services, and counselling). One approach might be adopting the Carer Passport scheme, which operates in some universities in the United Kingdom, to identify student carers and coordinate institution-wide support.
  10. Identify student carers who have made the transition to higher education successfully and use these students as mentors where possible.
  11. Support the establishment of (online) peer groups for student carers to promote the wellbeing and success of student carers.

National and state/territory governments

  1. Expand the Australian Government’s Try, Test and Learn Fund with a focus on supporting carers, and other priority groups, into higher education.
  2. Work with higher education institutions to develop a resource guide for prospective student carers, potentially including a website and online clearinghouse.
  3. Commission further research that captures the voices of student carers nationally to inform higher education policy. This work could actively involve student carers in the design and conduct of the research.

Service providers and peak bodies

  1. Individually by service provider, and via peak bodies at state and national levels, promote education-specific resources on websites and through helplines to encourage and support access to tertiary education.
  2. Access and profile the voices of student carers who have made the transition to tertiary education successfully and use these people as mentors where possible.
  3. Consider a tailored social media campaign to recognise and celebrate student carers, for example during National Carers Week and/or at important times in the course application cycle.

Read the full report, Supporting carers to succeed in Australian higher education

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