Through a glass, darkly: Gazing into the field of carers in academia
Research on higher education students and staff with caring responsibilities has quickly expanded since the 2000s, gaining further momentum during the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying disruptions of personal and professional lives. The field attracts growing interest from researchers, policymakers, employers and caregivers themselves. Yet it is also an area which, through its associations with reproductive and women’s work, remains relatively marginalised (Hook et al., 2022). In this blog post, we reflect on findings from a literature review on carers in academia recently published in the Review of Education (Moreau & Wheeler, 2023).
The literature search led to the identification of a total of 158 publications deemed relevant to this research, all of them listed and categorised using a number of tracking tools published as supplementary material to the article as appendices. We included English-language academic texts published between 2010 and 2020, which focused on carers studying or working in a tertiary-level institution. We adopted an inclusive perspective on what counted as ‘care work’ and ‘caring responsibility’, covering parents but also any individual with caring responsibilities for another being, human or non-human. We acknowledge the arbitrary nature of these inclusion criteria and of their interpretation, especially as care is multi-faceted and its contours are not clearly delineated (Tronto, 1993).
Our categorisation and analysis of these texts highlight how extant research is geared towards mothers, particularly student mothers and, more rarely, academic mothers. We came across a large research corpus on women’s academic careers. However, this work does not always centre care and thus was not necessarily included in the review. Overall, caring responsibilities other than the parenting of healthy, abled children tends to be ignored, with only a few texts considering higher education (HE) students or staff caring for an elderly or ill relative or friend. Likewise, studies of care work related to non-humans and to bringing life into the world or to end of life and loss (including miscarriages and stillbirths) remain very much non-existent in higher education research.
‘Caring responsibilities other than the parenting of healthy, abled children tends to be ignored, with only a few texts considering higher education students or staff caring for an elderly or ill relative or friend.’
Research on carers overwhelmingly focuses on women, particularly mothers (linked in this to the focus on parenting as noted earlier). Fathers and other male carers are broadly ignored. This invisibility is even more staggering when it comes to disabled, BME and LGBTQ+ carers, whether male, female or non-binary. More often than not, we found that research on carers tends to assume a heteronormative, two-parent family model. The focus on specific socio-demographic groupings such as women risks reinforcing the linkage between care work and heterosexual femininity. Research on carers in academia endorsing an intersectional approach remains unusual. Even in instances where samples of participants constitute a diverse group in relation to, for example, gender or ethnicity, the intersectionalities of their identity are rarely explored.
These observations encourage us to explore new avenues for research on carers in HE. As noted earlier, much work in the field focuses on specific groups but rarely centres on the academic norms which, in some instances, construct carers as a problem (Moreau, 2016). Building up a picture of carers’ experiences is a crucial step in the process of gaining recognition. However, research on those who benefit from care-free norms (the ‘bachelor boys’) and on the carefree norms which often permeate academic cultures is also needed. As well as challenging the deficit discourses of carers which construct carers themselves as ‘the problem’, this shift in research focus would also facilitate a more relational understanding of care (Lynch, 2010). We also need research capturing the diversity of care work in higher education and in other sectors. This requires challenging the binaries and hierarchies which construct some lives as less ‘lose-able’ and thus less worthy of care work (Butler, 2009). Last, we need to ensure that the important theoretical and empirical developments which have emerged in the field lead to the transformation of mainstream literature of HE – a transformation that requires us to go beyond a simple ‘add and stir’ approach, with a radical rethinking of the paid/unpaid, productive/reproductive, masculine/feminine binaries at play in academia and elsewhere.
This blog is based on the article ‘Through a glass, darkly: Gazing into the field of carers in academia’ by Marie-Pierre Moreau and Lucie Wheeler, published in the Review of Education.
Butler, J. (2009) Frames of war: When is life grievable? Verso.
Hook, G., Moreau, M. P., & Brooks, R. (Eds.) (2022). Student carers in higher education: Navigating, resisting and redefining academic cultures. Routledge.
Lynch, K. (2010). Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 54–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022209350104
Moreau, M. P. (2016). Regulating the student body/ies: University policies and student parents. British Educational Research Journal, 42(5), 906–925. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3234
Moreau, M. P., & Wheeler, L. (2023). Through a glass, darkly: Gazing into the field of carers in academia. Review of Education, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3387
Tronto, J. (1993) Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. Routledge.