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Student carers need more support

Gill Ryan, Access, Participation and Success Officer at The Open University in ScotlandAuthor: 

Gill Ryan is an Access, Participation and Success Officer with The Open University in Scotland.

It’s fair to say that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been shared equally. For many people across Scotland who are carers, the pandemic has meant an increased demand on them to provide care, increased isolation, and reduced support networks.

A carer is anyone who cares unpaid for a friend or family member who due to illness, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction, cannot cope without their support.

Some people have become carers in the past year, as the long-term impact of Coronavirus means their friend or family member now needs help with daily living.

Others are providing emotional support for people whose mental health conditions have been worsened by lockdown. According to research by Carers UK, carers are at breaking point.

Two people smiling, seated at a table, with an open notepad

Even at the best of times, Scotland’s carers (759,000 at the last count) are doing a tremendous amount of work with little recognition. Picture a second NHS, with care being delivered in family homes across Scotland.

A full-time job is 35 hours a week, yet a carer providing that level of ‘substantial’ care is entitled to a benefit of just £67.25 a week, so £1.92 per hour, compared with the National Living Wage of £8.72 per hour.

Some carers provide this care on top of a full-time job, while others find they have to reduce work hours or leave the workplace entirely because of their caring role. Others juggle caring with studying. 

Ann is one of 860 carers studying with The Open University in Scotland. She lives in Moray and is studying an OU post-graduate course alongside caring for her daughter, who has complex disabilities. She told us: 

"You can lose yourself as a carer, as if you only exist in relation to the person you care for. Study has been my respite. Others might find assignment deadlines stressful, but I love the structure, having something to look forward to, something that’s just for me."

The pandemic has been particularly tough for student carers. Ann says: 

"The space I had carved out for study has been squeezed by the fact that my daughter is at home all day. It’s not just the physical space and bandwidth issues, but lack of headspace and social support during lockdown and shielding. Luckily, the OU has been really supportive."

Research shows that student carers are four times more likely to drop out of college or university. Now more than ever, universities need to reach out to student carers to ensure they have the support they need. 

The OU in Scotland has recently launched a free online course for all staff at universities to be able to better support their students who are also carers.

The Carer Aware at University course was developed in partnership with Carers Trust Scotland, College Development Network and other universities across Scotland, with support from the Scottish Funding Council.  

The course is centred on students’ lived experience of caring and its impact on their ability to access, participate and succeed at university.

It sits on the OU’s free OpenLearn Create platform which can be accessed by everyone and institutions can adapt the course for their own use. 

The OU in Scotland also recently launched a Carers’ Bursary scheme and a dedicated mailbox for carers.

We have achieved the Going Higher for Student Carers award from Carers Trust Scotland, recognising our work to support student carers.

We are also part of the UK Short Breaks Research and Practice Development Group, which aims to improve the availability, choice, and quality of short breaks for carers.

With the launch of the Carer Aware at University course, it’s a prime opportunity to improve support for carers across Scotland at this particularly challenging time. 

More information is available at www.open.ac.uk/scotland/study/carers. 

Gill Ryan has led on the university’s successful application for the Going Higher for Student Carers award and the development of the new Carer Aware at University online course. She is a co-chair of the Care and Caring @OU Network and is a former student carer.

This blog was originally published by The Scotsman.  

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