Alone and unsupported: why student carers need more help

Becky Hammerton, a second-year college student, has been a carer since the age of nine. She looks after her mum, who was injured in a traffic accident, and her dad, who has mental health difficulties.

Living at home means she has a two-hour journey to college in Winchester, where she studies animal management and applied science. On her days off, she juggles university work with shopping, paying bills, cooking and providing emotional support for her parents.

The National Union of Students (NUS) estimates that between 3% and 6% of the student population are carers. Despite the hard work, support is patchy and depends on individual universities. People in full-time education also aren’t eligible for carer’s allowance, the government benefit for people providing significant amounts of unpaid care.

“Caring for my parents on my days off, as well as trying to do my uni work, is hard work,” Hammerton says. She tries to do coursework when she has time at home but often ends up working on the coach to uni. “I can’t fit in the extra research my lecturers recommend we do and it’s impossible to do all the assignments, everything at home and the extra work.”

Hammerton says she is lucky to have a support worker at college who knows her story. But she has friends at other universities who have had trouble getting the support they need, and says some have dropped out as a result.

Paige Steers, who is about to graduate from Bolton University, says that being a carer for her dad and older brother also affected her grades at college. She even had to suspend her final year of university when she was struggling.

Steers’ brother is deaf and has learning disabilities. One time when he had to go to hospital, Paige stayed overnight to translate what the doctors were saying into sign language and to keep him calm – and she missed an assignment as a result. “I emailed the tutor and explained the situation – thankfully, he gave me an extension,” she says. “But I know of situations where tutors haven’t been understanding. They say your work must come first, but that’s not always true.”

“On the whole, in higher education there isn’t a lot of support for young carers,” says Steers. One of the main problems is a lack of awareness, she says, pointing out that very few universities have a young carers policy: “If you’re a young person who is looking after an adult or sibling, then it’s not recognised or not taken into consideration.”

Christopher John Nation, known as CJ, cares for several family members while working as a DJ and studying for a degree at the weekends. He says many people don’t understand what life is like for student carers: “There is little support available at university, there isn’t much awareness.” He says this is down to fewer carers actually making it to university, “as they’ve not received support from an early age while in education”.

Susuana Amoah, women’s officer at the NUS, says flexible learning would help. This is already practised by some institutions, where student carers are able to adapt their studies and timescales to fit in with their caring commitments.

The NUS is also lobbying for universities to provide bursaries to student carers. NUS research found that two-thirds of student carersregularly worry about meeting basic living expenses, so taking away some of that financial strain would help.

For Autumn Beard, who has cared for her stepfather and sister since she was 10, going to university didn’t seem feasible. But with support from her college, she started looking and saw that Sheffield Hallam University offers support to people who have caring responsibilities, such as mentoring, tailored financial advice and bursaries. “It gave me that extra push to go for it,” she says. Now, she’s finishing the end of her first year as a nursing student.

It’s an example of how greater awareness and support can make a real difference to student carers who want to go to university. Beard gets regular newsletters from the university GP service, with details of support available and carers meet-ups. She hasn’t used the service yet, but says “you know there’s going to be someone there if you need someone to talk to”.

Similarly, Steers thinks support from a counsellor or peer support groups could help student carers feel less isolated: “As small as it seems, it is a big help just to get things off your chest.”

And, despite the challenges, there are signs that things are changing for the better. Earlier this year the NUS passed a policy to create a new section of the organisation for student parents and carers, and Amoah is hopeful that this will lead to two part-time NUS representatives, with their own committees and campaigns.

More support can’t come soon enough. “We’ve done a lot for the system, by saving money for the government, and we’re spending our time and losing some of our childhood to care for the people we love,” says Hammerton. “And then we lose out on an education – it just doesn’t seem fair.”