Caring for the carers - if not now, when?

Posted 18/12/2017 by Sarah Nalden

Marie-Pierre Moreau

Dr Marie-Pierre Moreau is a Reader in Education and Director othe RISE (Research in Inequalities, Societies and Education) research centre, University of Roehampton, London

"In what I have described as a hierarchy of care, the parenting of healthy, abled children is more visible and better supported than any other form of care work. Talking to the parents of children with special needs or with a disability, as well as to individuals caring for somebody who is ill or elderly, reveals how their complex experiences tend to be misrecognised, unsupported and ultimately dealt with through individualised solutions. This has a range of repercussions on academic staff, as well as on non-academic staff based in higher education who are even more often left out of these discussions. In the recent report I have written with Murray Robertson for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education on: Carers and Careers: Career development and access to leadership positions among academic staff with caring responsibilities, Carers and Careerswe found that, as a result of practices and policies geared towards the care-free worker, academic carers often adopted ‘specific’ norms of employment (e.g. working part-time and taking career breaks) which risk jeopardising their future career progression. We also found that research activities often take a back seat and that senior positions are sometimes simply out of reach for this group. Lastly, academic carers often experience a range of mild to acute well-being and health issues which many link to their dual status as academics and caregivers.

Researching the experiences of academic carers and how these are compounded by university cultures, policies and practices is urgent. According to the 2011 Office for National Statistics census, there are 5.4 million unpaid carers in England only. While we do not know how many of these are in academic positions, research points to the fact that carers now represent a significant presence in higher education and, as evidenced in my work and those of others (for example, the work of Emily Henderson, University of Warwick, on caring responsibilities and conferences), face a broad range of issues. The ageing of the general population also means that the proportion of those with complex caring needs is likely to increase in the future. This brings specific challenges for higher education as its workforce is numerically feminised and care work is mostly undertaken by women. While caregivers benefit in some ways from the relative flexibility associated with academic positions, they are also faced with heavy workloads. Caring for carers is a social justice issue and also an economic imperative, which requires the collective redefinition of university cultures. Achieving this necessitates an ambitious plan of action, including: collecting data on carers to visibilise and understand their needs; making this information accessible to generate collective awareness and recognition of this group; creating a carer-friendly culture through the development of policies targeting specifically carers and through the mainstreaming of care in generic institutional policies; addressing the inconsistency of care practices; and putting and keeping care on policy and research agendas".