Prof Marie-Pierre Moreau’s research into how universities can better cater for staff and students with caring responsibilities is born out of her personal experience.
'I had my child towards the end of my PhD,' she recalls. 'They were born in 2008, and I did my viva in 2009. I was also working full-time as a Research Fellow so it was a bit of a challenge.
'I thought it was interesting that there was extensive literature looking into work-life balance from a perspective of being an employee and a parent, but there was very little on being a student and a parent. So I managed to get some funding, and in 2010 started doing some case studies on student parents in England.'
Twelve years later, the work of Prof Moreau, who is Professor of Education at ARU, has grown considerably to provide research-based tools to aid the development of ‘care-full universities’ which accommodate the needs of carers.
She now also carries out research and interviews with academics with caring responsibilities as well as students, which she says have been 'notoriously under-researched'. Prof Moreau explains this could be 'looking after an elderly parent or a partner who may have a chronic condition or could be reaching the end of their life'.
Limited data is collected on the number of carers within higher education, but information from the Office for National Statistics indicates that one in five adults between 50 and 69 is a carer, while figures collated by UCAS identify 375,000 young adults in higher education with caring responsibilities.
While academic life can offer some flexibility to fit around caring, Prof Moreau says this is heavily dependent on the type of role you fulfil.
'If you have a heavy teaching workload it’s difficult to be flexible,' she says. 'And there’s the mobility imperative which is specific to academia; you’re expected to attend conferences and seminars and, in some subjects to relocate internationally to take up multiple postdoctoral contracts in the hope of getting a more permanent position.'
She adds that the increasing propensity for short contracts in the sector is 'not conducive to family life', with researchers often moving from contract to contract until they can secure a permanent position. All these factors can leave carers with financial problems, as well as impacting their health and well-being and hindering their career progression.
To create more "care-full universities", Prof Moreau has identified two key changes. The first, she says, relates to visibility and the normalisation of caring responsibilities.
'We often have default constructions of students and academics as people with no caring responsibilities, whereas the last 50 years have seen a massive diversification in higher education,' she says. 'We need to have a better picture of carers in academia and gather information we can use to inform our policies.'
Indeed, the second change required is around policy.
'Policies need to be altered so that the default position is to assume staff and students have caring responsibilities,' Prof Moreau explains. 'One example that came up very often in my interviews is that some universities disseminate their timetables very late in the term, or make changes several times at short notice.
'If you have to plan childcare that's problematic, and suddenly an issue which appears to have nothing to do with caring is having a very negative impact.'
The research is now having an impact internationally, with Prof Moreau advising on the development of carer-friendly policies and practices not only at ARU, but also further afield. Her work has involved universities in Australia and Ireland, covering HR, equality diversity and inclusion, and student services staff.
In 2020 she started collaborating with visual artist and academic Prof Sally Campbell Galman, who has translated some of Prof Moreau’s research into a series of drawings. These have been on display at ARU’s Cambridge campus this year, and are set to be exhibited at universities in the United States and Austria.
Image credit: © Sally Campbell Galman / Marie-Pierre Moreau, funded by Advance HE.
Prof Moreau says creating "care-full" universities is in everyone’s interests.
'You can improve staff retention and become more attractive to new staff by introducing a "care-full" culture,” she says. 'So not only is it the right thing to do from a social justice perspective, it also makes sense from a business perspective. Everybody benefits.'