Student carers' uptapped potential

A new La Trobe University report recommends a strengths-based approach to supporting university student carers, harnessing their unique skills and attributes to benefit themselves and their peers.

The research, funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and led by Lisa Andrewartha from the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research (CHEEDR) at La Trobe, found the challenges of caring responsibilities and university study could be mitigated by institutional awareness and accommodations.

“Approximately 10 per cent of the Australian population provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends with disability, illness or broader need,” Ms Andrewartha said.

“While the demands of caring can limit opportunities to participate and succeed in education, no national policy initiatives have yet been developed to identify and support carers in higher education.”

A national survey of 188 student carers highlighted many personal qualities sought by universities, including motivation; time management; empathy; compassion and patience; and expertise relevant to specific areas of study, such as nursing and disability awareness.

Despite these strengths, juggling caring and study produced considerable time pressures, financial hardship, and lower levels of wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic caused additional challenges and disruptions to household and study arrangements, resulting in increased university withdrawals.

“Universities could introduce and publicise targeted financial support measures and consider flexible study and assessment arrangements to increase attendance and engagement for student carers,” co-author Professor Andrew Harvey said.

“Universities could also develop more inclusive campus climates in which the strengths of student carers can be recognised and harnessed.”

A desktop review of Australian university websites revealed support for student carers in higher education to be limited and inconsistent.

“We found a major barrier to increased support for student carers was the lack of data collection at the institutional, state, and national levels,” Ms Andrewartha said.

“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.”

The study also noted a quarter of student carers never disclosed their carer status to anyone at university. The report recommends encouraging student carers to disclose their status at the time of application or enrolment to allow the timely provision of information about enrichment opportunities and institutional support.

NCSEHE Director Professor Sarah O’Shea highlighted the wide-reaching potential of the research team’s recommendations.

“Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds or challenging circumstances bring with them valuable life experience which can enrich their own, and others’, educational experiences,” Professor O’Shea said.

“This research presents opportunities for institutions to nurture the inherent potential of student carers, which will benefit the university community as a whole.”

The final report, Supporting carers to succeed in Australian higher education, is available here.

The NCSEHE

Based at Curtin University in Perth, the NCSEHE aims to inform public policy design and implementation and institutional practice to improve the higher education participation and success for marginalised and disadvantaged people.

The Centre is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.