USyd fails student carers. Here’s what needs to change

The University doesn’t just have inadequate support for young carers — it’s not supporting them at all.

In 2020, my Mum was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer; by 2022, it had spread to her brain. Among the confusion and devastation of such a diagnosis, I have repeatedly sought systematic support from the University of Sydney to ensure that I can complete my degree while also being able to care for my Mum. Instead of providing me with a sense of relief, I have found myself caught in a bureaucratic quagmire, left without clear or adequate assistance.

Currently, the University of Sydney has no structure for young carers seeking ongoing support. The page on the University website that aligns most closely with student carers is called ‘Parent Networks and Other Resources’, but this directs one to school holiday programs and playgroups—not exactly helpful for someone who is caring for their mother with cancer. If one has primary caregiving responsibilities, they can apply for special considerations, although this is done on an assessment-by-assessment basis and ongoing delays regularly plague the system.

Throughout three years of caring, I have reached out to the student centre multiple times, and have been told, in various ways (and never this explicitly) that no structural support for student carers exists.

Of course, USyd’s lack of recognition for student carers fits into broader trends of informal care work being undervalued (despite it underpinning the formal economy).

Young carers disproportionately come from populations already excluded by tertiary education; young carers are more likely to come from families who are economically disadvantaged, and be from a non-English speaking background. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are almost twice as likely to be young carers, and young carers themselves are more likely to have a disability or long term health condition. The ongoing lack of support for student carers from the university further entrenches these inequalities.

Caring is multifaceted, and young carers are not a homogenous group. No two carers’ lives, and responsibilities look the same, further increasing the complexity of providing structural support. However, the university can and should be doing more. Students shouldn’t have to decide between caring for people they love or completing their education. The steps below are intended to provide a pathway for management to better support young carers.

1. USyd needs to broaden its understanding of what counts as care.

The University’s ‘Parent Networks and Other Resources’ is grossly inadequate and presents a single view of caring. Across the literature, and in my experience,  it is difficult to identify young carers, with many hesitant to self-identify. In Australia, a young carer is defined as a person aged 25 or younger looking after a friend or family member with a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, or who is frail aged.

Care can be practical, like cooking and cleaning; emotional, such as providing encouragement or comfort; or personal, like bathing and monitoring medication. Responsibilities vary wildly from person to person, but an explicit and broad definition from the university would ensure that students who perform additional care duties are able to see themselves represented, regardless of how they feel about the title ‘young carer’, and access support to assist them.

2. USyd must centralise information relating to student carers onto a single web page.

Student carers have limited time, and sorting through convoluted information across disparate pages adds an additional burden. This webpage should include, at a minimum: a clear definition of what counts as care responsibilities (as outline above), what ongoing support the university can offer students (both academically and through CAPS), and what support the university can offer if you suddenly find yourself in a position of care taking (importantly, this should mention the opportunity to discontinue without failure after the census date owing to exceptional circumstances).

Both the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University have clearly accessible and easily understandable pages directed at student carers if USyd management would like a place to begin.

3. Ideally, a structure that applies to student carers should be implemented or, in lieu of that, academic plans should be expanded to recognise students with additional caretaking needs.

There must be a recognition of the ongoing requirements of care work—special considerations do not suffice. I was only able to access an academic plan after my mental health declined due to a lack of structural support from the university. Crucially, my disability plan does not include the main reason for me accessing the service: my mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and my resulting additional caretaking responsibilities.

This plan has been immeasurably helpful; however, it still does not adequately respond to my caretaking responsibilities. To receive support, I have had to individually email unit coordinators to inform them of my situation, something which is personally distressing and increases both mine and lecturers’ administrative load. A systematic structure would alleviate these pressures and provide a pathway that carers and academics alike can rely on.

4. USyd must ensure that these services are advertised widely and regularly.

There is no point in investing in support if students are unaware such support exists. In the same way that many units advertise disability services, and, importantly, what is covered by disability services, support for student carers should follow the same principle; what counts as caring? What are examples of support that the university can provide if you are a carer? The availability of these services must be clearly communicated to staff, particularly those in student-facing roles, so that students asking for help can be pointed in the right direction.

5. USyd should engage with student carers across multiple disciplines to ensure that the system is working across the board.

Course requirements differ according to discipline, and young carers are a diverse group. The university should engage with student carers to learn how their additional responsibilities impact on their education. For example, how can placements fit in with caring responsibilities? What works best in terms of timetabling for student carers? Could attendance be wavered if one has carer duties? What student carers need will not be revealed without consultation.

Student carers face enough challenges. Support from the university should not be dependent on how understanding unit coordinators are, or through short term means such as special considerations. To care for my Mum has been a joy in hundreds of big and small ways, but a lack of support from the university has meant that I have had to sacrifice my dreams and goals. I won’t be doing honours, I haven’t received the marks I could have, I have felt endless shame about failing units after my mother was diagnosed, and I have learnt that once you fail one unit it is much easier to fail another. I don’t want other young carers to feel the same way or experience the same system.

Students should not have to choose between caring for a loved one or completing their education. The solutions above are not perfect, but they are actionable. It is long overdue for USyd to examine how it can better support young carers, because truthfully, it is not supporting us at all.