When one thinks of issues of access and inclusion, student carers are unlikely to be the first group that comes to mind. The very role of a carer is relatively unknown to the public as their achievements are largely experienced by those receiving care. To clarify, carers are individuals who undertake caring responsibilities for a family member or significant other. Those being cared for generally suffer from physical or mental disabilities that limit their capacity to care for themselves. Caring roles can be undertaken part time (sometimes shared between multiple carers) or full time where day to day care is provided by the individual. Those who undertake caring responsibilities do so out of family or friendship responsibility to the person being cared for. Caring is a selfless act as it has no immediate financial benefits and can be a substantial burden upon the carer. This burden is most impactful upon youth carers and student carers, who generally lack the resources to balance caring responsibilities and other commitments such as work and study.
Research into youth and student carers shows that the role can create significant economic and social disadvantages. Maintaining employment can be challenging as a carer’s role can require them to be unexpectedly absent due to unforeseen caring responsibilities. The same is true of education, where absence can be unforeseen and difficult to discuss. Despite the disadvantages faced by carers, their unpaid work is estimated to contribute $13 billion of economic output. This is measured based on the cost of care if it was provided outside of family and friendship networks. Caring positively contributes to economic and social welfare despite the limitations that the role places on carers.
Personal accounts of carers indicate the strain that caring places on the individual. Extra responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, administering medications and practical tasks take up so much time in the average day that it is completely unrealistic to expect carers to be able to meet all work and schooling deadlines. Carers express feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation as the burden of care takes a toll on overall wellbeing. The lack of structural accommodation of carers contributes to feelings of dissatisfaction and disadvantage. The current social understanding of carers is also detrimental to access and inclusion: carers can feel stigmatised or unable to ask for help as the role is frequently misunderstood. In many cases carers fear that their caring role will be perceived as a personal weakness. This is due to a severe lack of carer assistance and public unawareness. Caring should be reframed as a personal strength, as the role provides significant skills in organisation and management.
Youth carers aged 14 – 25 and student carers represent a particularly vulnerable section of caring roles. The responsibility that caring requires can impact on education and employment, limiting the success a carer can have. This pressure placed on youth and student carers can have long term effects on qualifications and mental wellbeing. Despite the substantial burden that youth and student carers face, there is a lack of institutional support for carers that could help alleviate some of the hardship faced.
The Australian tertiary education system currently offers very little in the way of support for carers through access and inclusion. Some crucial steps forward include modifications to current access and inclusion policies in general and greater awareness of the carer role. Clear policy guidelines are needed to specify the process of acquiring extensions and special considerations for assessment, and greater flexibility is necessary to allow for the extra difficulties carers face. This would work comparably to current extension and special consideration policies to maintain consistency in institutional application. At the moment this poses a challenge as extensions are generally granted on the basis of a medical certificate, and the caring role does not directly affect the condition of the carer. Because of this, a method of carer appraisal is needed either internally through institutions or externally through certification of caring roles.
Increased financial support would also benefit carers in fulfilling caring roles and tertiary/employment commitments. The economic output generated by carers justifies increased funding to scholarships and assistance programs for student carers. Considering the importance of caring roles, supporting these individuals financially would subsidise their invaluable contribution to the economy and facilitate lower levels of drop outs within the carer population.
Awareness is another important element of improving study conditions for carers. One of the biggest contributors to anxiety/depression and feelings of isolation amongst carers is the limited understanding of the importance of caring roles among the broader population. Feelings of stigmatisation have been linked to carers reducing engagement with tertiary programs. In order to increase public knowledge of caring responsibilities, campaigns aimed at spreading awareness and generating discussion are needed. Melbourne University has had success in campaign-based support through their website which contains important information and personal stories of caring responsibilities.
The ANU Carers Collective and Carers within ANU are seeking to engage the public through awareness programs similar to that of Melbourne University. By producing carer-based content and recognition, further advocacy of carer issues can be shared.
ANU should strive to be at the forefront of carer support and inclusion. As a leading Australian university, it has the capacity to radically reform current standards of carer support nationwide. The introduction of effective carer policies here would mean the potential to implement successes more broadly. Extensions and special considerations are an immediate step forward along with initial planning of scholarships and support programs. Following in the footsteps of Melbourne University’s advocacy of carer issues would also increase awareness and public support. This could be achieved by providing an institutional platform to groups like the ANU Carers Collective for advocacy. With University backing, the issues would be more widely accessible and provide foundations for policy adjustments going forward. Student and youth carers are disadvantaged by a lack of structural accommodation through access and inclusion. The strength that carers provide through a supportive role should be recognised and supported by tertiary institutions. Doing so will reduce carer disadvantage and dissatisfaction promoting inclusivity and support. ANU and universities in general should strive to support carers and their ongoing economic and social contributions to society.