Crisis and care in PGR education

By Karen Gordon, PGR Intern (Events) in the Research Culture & Researcher Development Team

graphic of a speech bubble holding the quote by bell hooks: "to teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential. If we are to provide the necessary conditions are learning a most deeply and intimately begin."

My personal experience

Going into the second year of my PhD in 2022, I thought I was as prepared as any other second year. Definitely not on top of everything, but the multiple plates I was spinning were seemingly all staying upright, my relationship with my supervisors was supportive and I was very much enjoying my professional roles at the university. I was ready for the new year.

But, towards the end of 2022 I was faced with a task I didn’t have factored into my timeline – I needed to find new accommodation. Soon. I found myself in crisis, needing to find a new place to live immediately and I began to look at options.

I was very aware of the housing crisis across the UK before finding myself in this situation. As a care-leaver, I am also not unfamiliar with finding myself in insecure housing such as no accommodation to return to during summer periods when university accommodation ends, or being unable to meet the guarantor criteria many housing agents stipulate as a prerequisite of securing a lease. Insecure housing is a common problem for many care-leavers.

What was new about my situation at the end of 2022 was the status of the UK housing market.

I tackled the problem like I would with any other task – I made plans, multiple lists, timelines and kept logs. I systematically made my way through online housing adverts. I called housing agents and chased leads. I attended viewings. All whilst continuing to meet my PhD goals and deadlines and work my three professional jobs.

Despite my best efforts there was nothing available for me. The very real situation I found myself in in January 2023 was that I was just a few weeks away from being homeless.

Despite working multiple jobs, being extremely proactive in contacting landlords and being able to provide references; the bottom line was, there was nowhere for me to go. One hour after a new listing would be put up, it would be taken down due to being oversubscribed. Speaking to housing agents informed me of the 300+ applications in the space of an hour. All usually from people working full-time. The identifier of ‘student’ next to my name on applications (doctoral researcher or not), put me right at the bottom of the list.

Beginning to feel utterly hopeless, yet continuing to work in my professional roles and maintain my research goals as best as I could, my mental health broke. I was exhausted, vulnerable, and felt the sinking reality of the unsafety of the situation. Yet, I continued to work and to study, to liaise with colleagues and peers, to teach classes and reply to emails, to try to write when possible. Throughout this time there are very few people within the university who were aware of my circumstances. Working was an excellent distraction and one that I didn’t want tainted with my own worries.

Why does this matter?

My point in detailing my experience is because I know that I am only one of so many others in the UK who have been in this situation in the last year.  

The housing situation across the UK is dire. A report from Save The Students (Feb, 2023) details how the combination of the energy crisis, extortionate rent in private rentals and student housing shortages across institutions has led to a significant increase in the number of students facing homelessness. They found that 2 out of 5 students contacted have considered dropping out of university in the last year due to the cost of rent; the proportion of students struggling financially is up to a record 63% in 2022; and that 72% of students detailed that their health has been directly affected due to the stress of securing accommodation and rental costs.

The impact that this stress has cannot be understated. This adds to an already established body of research which has demonstrated that stress (on doctoral researchers in particular), is at a crisis point within Higher Education. The rise in mental health issues for doctoral researchers has been argued to be impacted by the demand of academic working conditions (Levecque, 2017) lack of accessibility to accessing appropriate support (Cage et al. 2020), policy changes coupled with short-term contracts and budget cuts (Biron et al. 2008) alongside increased competition in the job market post-PhD (Walsh & Lee, 2015). The deterioration in doctoral researcher mental health is already well documented even before adding in the current economic circumstances students are facing. Although institutions usually do offer counselling and mental health support, the demand for it is astronomical and resources are finite, meaning high waiting times for support.

What does this mean for those who support or develop PGRs?

Within the Research Culture and Researcher Development Team, there is a dialogue surrounding PGR engagement and how we can support and improve this. Why do PGRs engage with certain services or events and not others? How can we support them to get involved and what does this look like at a practical level?

What I would offer from my own experience is that often, PGRs (and other researchers) do not readily divulge their personal circumstances within an academic setting. This can be grounded in a variety of factors; hierarchies of power within supervisory relationships, cultural considerations in professional environments, stigma surrounding discussing sensitive topics at an institutional level and fear of judgement and shame. That means that our PGRs’ personal circumstances are unknown to us. We have no idea what they are going through and with this in mind, empathy in our work, and praxis of a ‘pedagogy of care’ become ever so important.

A pedagogy of care reflects that educational practice should be grounded in ethics of care, support and community; and that this is central in aiming to teach students at all levels (Gay, 2018). I would argue that introducing pedagogies of care as a central philosophy to professional services can be transformative to the research culture.

Building safety through visible points of contact

One practical action we can take to achieve an ethic of care in research(er) support is to offer visible points of contact, and clear processes and points of escalation. At my lowest points over the last 6 months, I knew I was able to reach out to a contact that I had in the Widening Participation Team, Dan Keenan. Dan and his colleague Jenn Weightman provide an essential point of contact for care-experienced and estranged students at the University of Glasgow.

Although they have been able to offer practical help over the last 6 months, in terms of applying for funding, discussing housing options, brainstorming ideas and offering to find all the support they could for me; the most helpful thing has been knowing that I wasn’t alone with this. That there are expert staff members within the institution, who care. They want me to succeed and do well. Having this support in place was instrumental to me not giving up; and ultimately, I was lucky enough to find emergency accommodation with their support. Supportive managers matter, as do supportive supervisors – both make a huge difference to how you cope, but neither should be responsible for the entirety of the support PGRs need as complex human beings with real lives. Specialist support teams for people in crisis are essential.

This type of professional (and human) service through the university exemplifies a pedagogy of care. It is transformative and radical. Making processes clear and easy to access, offering a personal conversation with a knowledgeable human being, taking away ambiguity in processes, and designing non-time-consuming systems is not just efficient, it demonstrates respect for others’ finite time, and energy.

As members of professional services, we can often be taken up with the day-to-day tasks, the chaos and stress of our own workloads and in organising delivery of services. If we can pause and reflect through the process, consider who we are engaging with and how we can instil a pedagogy of care within our work, there are tangible positive effects on our culture that can stem from this.

If you have enjoyed this post, consider how you can take small actions to support your PGRs to know what to do, and who to contact in crisis situations. Where is this information, how can it be accessed, how can you help them navigate it?

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