Imagine accommodating your studies during a pandemic – which may imply online courses with stressed-out lecturers and outdated technological university infrastructures – with responsibilities to care for a person during a pandemic – which often means caring for an at-risk group with hardly any institutional support.
Caring higher education students are a group that the social sciences have, so far, paid little attention to, particularly in the German context. Therefore, researchers from Frankfurt, Bremen and Mönchengladbach have turned to the topic. The project “Caring Students – Challenges and Support for Students with Care Obligations” (2020 – 2021) explores the situation of caring students, analyzes their challenges and coping strategies, as well as relevant support structures in Germany. Methods comprise a systematic literature review, a collection of good practice examples for support structures within universities across Europe, and qualitative interviews with caring students.
What have we learned so far about the situation of caring students in the German higher education system, and how has this very specific group been affected by the covid-19 pandemic? How did the pandemic affect the already challenging situation of caring students?
Before we discuss some first results, we acknowledge that the group itself is extremely heterogeneous. The duration and intensity of caregiving, the relation between the care-giver and the care-recipient, as well as the support structures and the sort of disability that requires care result in situations that differ greatly. And still, some of the problems these students face in the pandemic are quite similar.
First, caring students faced challenges caused by institutional lock-downs. Much of institutional support in the field of care was restricted to emergency situations, and academic teaching changed significantly, for example courses were solely offered online. Hence, many caring students were left alone with the task of both studying and caring at home. A student reported that from the start of the pandemic she was at home around the clock as her disabled adolescent son whom she provides care for, could neither go to school nor did she manage to arrange institutional home care support up until May. Due to restrictions and volatility in the regulations in force, organizing care has been more time-consuming than before. This, as further stated by an interview partner, leads to a situation in which through consistent caretaking the study performance is highly tainted.
Resulting from this situation, and secondly, the pandemic greatly impacted on the individual well-being of caring students. Time spent at the university was framed by many as a “break” from caring and thus is important for the carersʾ recreation. If universities shut down as a place to work and study, this relief vanishes. One interview partner describes the university as a buffer from social exclusion, for example providing opportunities to have lunch with fellow students and just chit-chat without worrying about the person she cares for. Consequently, and other than we expected, caring students did not see online courses positively, as the downsides outweighed the advantages of flexibility. Instead, when students care at home without institutional support, they might not be able to “clear their mind” for studying in the same environment.
As a conclusion from our findings, we see that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the challenges of caring students in higher education as an already disadvantaged group. Online teaching and learning offer a window of opportunity for more flexible learning environments that could potentially support caring students. However, the importance of the university as a place of exchange and opportunity to live a “normal student life” must not be underestimated during the pandemic. The upcoming online semester will show in how far university administration and teaching will be able to use the potential of online learning without reproducing social inequalities and disadvantaging those already challenged even further.
The project is funded by the Faculty of Educational Sciences and the Equal Opportunities Office at the Goethe University Frankfurt.