The University of Edinburgh must take more steps to protect carers on campus
Most students can say they have heard the phrase ‘good time management’ mentioned at least 10 times by various tutors during their time at university. It is usually referred to when advising on workload management or as a way to avoid requests for essay extensions. However, what tutors sometimes fail to understand is that we as students have a social life in addition to our academic life. We go to the gym, and we want to go out some nights and maybe even sleep in some mornings. Good time management? It is rather a question of there not being enough hours in the day. And this is just the time poverty felt by regular students. What about the student carers – the students who care for a friend or family member for numerous hours a week? At this point the idea of time poverty suddenly seems more relevant, and the phrase ‘good time management’ is left redundant.
The category of students who provide unpaid support to family or friends unable to manage without help is a hidden group within the student body. The fact is that the number of student carers currently enrolled at the University of Edinburgh is not even asserted, and the University does not recognise them as a group. This means that the University does not have to do anything for students with a caring role. This demonstrates how poorly recognised, supported and valued student carers are. However, the problem of defining, and thus recognising, student carers is complex. Many student carers do not think about themselves within that definition, and this, combined with the fact that they provide different types and level of care, makes the task of defining and assessing the number of student carers more problematic.
“Being a carer makes studying stressful for me, as I have a constant worry in the back of my head – is mum ok? Will anyone bother to contact me if something happens to her? Can I afford to go home is she needs me?” says Carol Hayward when asked about the challenges of combining studying and caring. In addition, another former student carer describes the difficulties of “late night phone calls, feeling guilty for leaving siblings behind, and not being able to ask parents for help.” Furthermore, an NUS report shows that two thirds of student carers experience financial difficulties. Full-time students are not deemed eligible for Carer’s Allowance, a benefit available to full-time carers who receive only minimum income from other sources, consequently making it a major barrier to accessing and staying in higher education for many carers. Another problem is the inadequate organised support for student carers within universities: “As it stands, there are no provisions in my school to make allowances for carers – for example, if I were to miss an assessed lab or workshop in order to go home and help my mum, I’d still be penalised”, says Carol.
What can be done? Considering that carers save this country £119 billion a year, perhaps policy changes should be made to ensure that student carers are able to access Carer’s Allowance. EUSA are currently trying to help student carers tackle their financial difficulties, working with Edinburgh University Young Adult Carers (EUYAC) in exploring the possibilities of sourcing an emergency fund that will help student carers get home when they are needed. They are also examining whether Ucas can create a way of identifying student carers in the initial application process, thus ensuring that the University and key personnel can become aware of, define, and assess the number of student carers early on. Meanwhile, EUYAC are fighting for the university to start recognising them as a vulnerable group. Measures such as establishing a standardised seven-day extension policy can hopefully be one of the first steps on the road to increased recognition and support for an impressive group of young adults combining studying with care.