Open University students balancing study and caring responsibilities - Shona Littlejohn

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the lives of unpaid carers, with many left to cope on their own without wider support networks during lockdown. During this year’s Carers Week (June 6-12) The Open University in Scotland is shining a light on the essential care our students provide.

More than 1,000 Open University (OU) in Scotland students are balancing study and caring responsibilities, and we’re seeing increasing numbers of our students declaring that they are carers. Our model of supported distance learning enables carers to flexibly study from home and manage studying with caring commitments.

Carers decide to study with us for a number of different reasons. Some want to further develop the skills and knowledge they’ve gained while caring, or to gain new qualifications to improve their employment prospects and start a new career. Others are resuming studies they’ve put on hold, while we also have students studying for enjoyment and to keep their brains active.

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For our students Karine and Sarah, an Edinburgh-based married couple, studying with us has given them a renewed focus and benefitted their mental health as they cope with the challenges of Karine’s primary progressive multiple sclerosis. They both say that they couldn’t imagine studying any other way than through flexible and supported distance learning.

Emma McQueen, Open University in Scotland student carer.Emma McQueen, Open University in Scotland student carer.
Emma McQueen, Open University in Scotland student carer.

When Sarah became ill herself and was struggling to balance studying with her caring responsibilities, she felt supported by OU tutors to take a break and come back later to studying.

We recognise that carers can face ongoing and unexpected challenges that can impact on their studies. As well as taking a break from study, our student carers can take exams at home, receive study support sessions with tutors, arrange deadline extensions for assignments, apply for a Carers Bursary to help with study-related costs, and we also have an active student carers forum offering peer support.

For one of our graduates from Falkirk, studying with the OU in Scotland was her first step towards achieving her dream job as a teacher. As a full-time carer to her autistic son, Emma had previously felt that there were too many barriers to studying at university, including the daily cost of travelling to a university campus and being away from her family. We were delighted to find out recently that Emma’s now qualified as a teacher and starting work in a school in August.

As a carer, Emma qualified for a Part-time Fee Grant to fund her studies, while the OU also advised her that she could transfer previous credits gained at college, meaning she’d already completed a third of her degree. The Part-time Fee Grant also made it possible for Karine and Sarah to afford to study.

Carers are a priority for us. Helping carers to access educational opportunities is an integral part of our vision to provide more students with life-changing learning that meets their needs and enriches society. Our work to support student carers has been recognised with a Going Higher for Student Carers Recognition Award, which is awarded by Carers Trust Scotland to celebrate best practice across Scottish universities.

We want carers to know that they are visible to us, we value and recognise the skills and knowledge they’ve gained from doing this crucial work, and we are here to support them plan for their future.

To find out more about support available to carers visit to apply

Shona Littlejohn is Depute Director for Student Experience & Widening Access at The Open University in Scotland.

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