Students with care responsibilities

This good practice briefing outlines the common challenges for students with care responsibilities and ways in which HE providers can support them.

Who are carers?

Carers provide unpaid care and support for a family member, partner, or friend who has an illness, disability, mental health condition or addiction. There are approximately 6.5 million carers in the UK, of which 375,000 are young adult carers aged 16 – 24.

There is currently very little data available about young adult carers in higher education, and even less for carers aged over 25. Many student carers report that they do not know how to identify themselves to get support at university.

In 2018, we introduced a series of new questions into the UCAS Postgraduate application, allowing applicants to self-declare certain circumstances for which HE providers may be able to offer support. These questions will be reflected in our undergraduate application in the future.


The UCAS application

To support the identification of students with individual support needs, UCAS is planning to introduce a series of new questions into the application. One of these questions will enable students with care responsibilities to self-declare their circumstances:

Do you have any care responsibilities? Y/N

Select ‘yes’ if you are responsible for providing unpaid care to someone who has, for example:

> a long-term illness

 > a disability

> a mental health condition

> an addiction

> temporary care needs following, for example, an accident or operation

Find out more about applying to university if you are a carer. If you select ‘yes’, your information will be treated in confidence, to help the university or college provide support for you. It may also be used for monitoring purposes to inform and improve support for future students who have care responsibilities.

This question will be further supported by extended FAQ-style help text to clarify how the information is used and the support students may be able to access in higher education by sharing their circumstances.

To support applicants with care responsibilities, UCAS has worked with Carers Trust to create a personal statement guide which is designed to help applicants highlight the strengths and skills gained from their personal experience. This may help highlight students’ circumstances to higher education providers.


Three key challenges for student carers

Research by Carers Trust and NUS into the experience of students balancing their studies with their care responsibilities in higher education highlights three key areas where carers need support:

1. Academic

Young adult carers are four times more likely to drop out of their studies than the average (29% compared to 6.5% of HE students nationally). Their daily studies are sometimes affected by absence, lateness and missed deadlines – 56% of student carers reported they were struggling with their studies because of their care responsibilities. Courses requiring off-site learning or work placements may present difficulties to students who need to make arrangements around their care responsibilities.

2.  Financial

Although student carers are less likely than students without caring responsibilities to be in paid employment due to their lower availability for work, a majority of student carers (60%) combine caring, studying, and work in order to meet their (or their household’s) basic living costs. Full-time students are ineligible for Carers’ Allowance, and NUS research has found they are three times more likely to take on high risk debt, such as payday loans (6% compared to 2% of students without care responsibilities).

3. Health and wellbeing

Juggling the conflicting priorities of studying and caring (and sometimes working too) can cause additional stress and pressure for carers. In addition, they sometimes feel isolated and many feel they have to sacrifice the social aspects of higher education to study and care. It is not, therefore, surprising that mental health and wellbeing is a key issue for carers: 45% of young adult carers report a mental health problem – almost double the national average.


Considerations ahead of the introduction of the new question

To support pre-applicants

  • Is there a central contact with whom student carers can discuss any problems or support needs before they apply or arrive? Are their contact details easily accessible online?
  • Is the support clearly signposted on your website (preferably on a dedicated page for carers) and through student services?
  • Are carers mentioned in your widening participation strategy and plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England)?
  • Are marketing and recruitment teams aware of the support available to student carers, and is this flagged at recruitment events?
  • When you engage with secondary schools (e.g. through outreach), do you raise awareness of the support available to Young Adult Carers (YACs) in higher education?

To support applicants

  • What processes are in place to (sensitively) share information about an applicant’s declared circumstances with your student services team? Are all parties involved aware of their responsibilities and next steps?
  • Is the information relayed to the student’s academic tutor? Are academic staff aware of the needs of student carers, or would they benefit from further information or training?
  • How do you provide carers with an opportunity to alert you to their support needs later in the admissions process (e.g. during enrolment)?
  • Do you check for references to an applicant’s caring responsibilities in their personal statement or reference – even if they have not ticked the box?
  • Does your university or college consider student carers within any contextualised admissions policy?
  • Do you give applicants sufficient notice of interviews or auditions so they can make any necessary arrangements, and do you allow them to reschedule if they are unable to attend?
  • Do you contact students early in the cycle so they know who to contact with any questions or support needs, instead of after confirmation? 

To support transition

  • Do you contact students ahead of their arrival to provide details of health and wellbeing support services available through the university, and to encourage contact to discuss any concerns or needs?
  • Are there any opportunities for flexibility in timetabling for students with care responsibilities? Are timetables sent out in good time?
  • What measures are in place to support students with establishing social networks and integrating fully into wider student life – especially those living off campus?
  • Does your university or college have connections with local carer support networks and groups? Is this information readily available through student services and online?
  • Do students fully understand what support they will receive before they arrive, and know what to expect on their first day?

To support ongoing study and graduation

  • If a support package already exists for student carers, is it inclusive of all ages or restricted to young adult carers only? Does your messaging reflect this?
  • Are the three key challenges for carers (as outlined above) covered, or is further provision needed?
  • Will support be reviewed periodically (e.g. to accommodate changes to the student’s care responsibilities)?
  • What measures are in place to support a student making the transition out of higher education and into employment?

If you do not currently offer a discrete support package for carers, consider what support exists for all students, which they might find helpful (e.g. hardship fund eligibility, extenuating circumstances policy). Could these elements be signposted together in one place (e.g. a dedicated carers’ web page), or offered as a package?


Examples of good practice and support for carers

199 universities and colleges across the UK specifically refer to student carers in their 2019/20 widening participation plans (e.g. Access and Participation Plans in England), and there is a diversity of provision available.

Below, we present a selection of good practice from these providers, which we hope will inspire others that are considering how they might be able to support carers more effectively. This may be through discrete support packages or extensions/adaptions of existing provision to incorporate the needs of student carers:

Examples of ‘quick wins’

  • A named contact, with their direct line and email address published online, and examples of how they can help (e.g. create a personalised support plan, arrange accommodation, liaise with other departments).
  • Information about exceptional/extenuating circumstances tailored to student carers.
  • Develop and maintain a relationship with local services for carers.
  • Free, regular study support skills workshops.
  • Recorded lectures available online for those unable to attend.
  • Celebrate carers’ achievements and contributions on national carer awareness days.
  • Regularly check the Student Loans Company’s campaigns page and make sure you are registered to receive updates from your regional SLC account manager.
  • Clearing ‘scripts’ give students an opportunity to share any personal circumstances or support needs.
  • A dedicated web page for carers, outlining the support available and how to access it, including:
    • signposting mental health and wellbeing support on campus
    • information about hardship funds and eligibility (including food banks)
    • links to local and national support services for carers

Examples of medium-term changes – may require changes to current plans, policies, or processes

  • A carers’ bursary or access to university hardship funds, with financial advice about budgeting. Young carers included in your provider’s widening participation outreach work.
  • An up-to-date policy for student carers, which clarifies the support they can expect, and staff roles and responsibilities.
  • Detailed course information (including assessment methods, work placement/ off-site learning requirements) to help prospective applicants make informed decisions about how to manage study and care responsibilities.
  • Flexibility for placements and off-site events to fit around care responsibilities, deadline extensions, and extenuating circumstances procedures.
  • Priority access to hardship funds and financial advice, including help with budgeting and benefits.
  • Early delivery of timetables to allow students to make alternative care arrangements in good time.
  • Help with fees for clubs and societies to help address barriers to socialising and reduce loneliness.

Examples of longer-term changes which may require planning and substantial changes

  • Progress tracking of carers, with an evaluation of the support provided, and an impact assessment to ensure support is effective.
  • An induction day in the summer holidays to help with transition, including a tour of the campus, introduction to student support and wellbeing services, and a chance to discuss support required.