Parents and Carers Networks in HEIs

Hello from sunny Newcastle upon Tyne!

I am feverishly squeezing in a first blog post in the precious time during which my daughter naps! As a parent on shared parental leave (two weeks in), I am rapidly learning how much I took time for granted in the past. Ana and I have been making steady progress on ‘phase one’ of the project and we thought it would be an appropriate time to summarise where we are and how we are getting on.  

My first attempt at this blog ended here when my daughter woke up…

As I was saying (now three weeks in), this is a blog about a project about Parents and Carers in workplace networks across the UK Higher Education System. The project aims to learn about an emergent ‘network of networks’ that has connected these local networks together and, we feel, has the potential to grow into a more established space and voice for parents and carers. Our project follows three phases:

  1. Initial setup, building relationships and mapping the current scope of Parents and/or Carers networks across the UK.
  2. Learning more by surveying and interviewing members and chairs of these networks
  3. Developing a toolkit to help existing and new networks learn from the various approaches to grow their networks and the national network.

Alongside planned academic outputs (conferences and journals), our project also aims to share our findings via different communication channels such as WONKHE, Times Higher Education and The Conversation. This is very important to us as we want to develop a community and extend the impact of this research to grow the presence of these networks in the UK HEI sector.

For the rest of this blog, I will introduce myself and my friend and co-investigator, Ana. We also work closely with our project group member who are listed on this website. Their involvement makes this project an exciting and enriching experience.

I am a father of two children, a boy aged 3 ½ and a girl aged 6 months. I live with my wife, Holly and we jointly care for our children while also pursuing our careers. Holly is a hospital doctor in Renal Medicine and is currently undertaking a PhD in genetic kidney disease. I am an academic whose research focuses on the gendered inequity exacerbated by the transition from paid work without children to paid work with children. I am especially interested in the role of masculinities and patriarchy in the motherhood penalty and fatherhood forfeit. Outside of our working lives, Holly and I love being in nature and going on walks with our children and family. These days, this often involves the enticement of a chocolate treasure hunt to ensure our son remains engaged. We also love visiting our parents and yearn for the days when we can visit a cinema as a family!

Ana and I both share a passion for gender research and community. Like many pandemic workplace friendships, we got to know each other over Zoom, something we know has accelerated the growth of parents and carers networks, too. We hope we can bring a critical and constructive lens to this project, working alongside experts in this field of research to help this network of networks grow through a diverse membership, vibrant community and powerful voice.

We have invited our project group members to contribute their thoughts to this blog series. We hope to share the insights of Dr Fire Kovarovic (Chair of Durham University Mothers and Mothers-to-be Support Network - MAMS), Dr Jeremy Davies (Head of Communications at the Fatherhood Institute), and Dr Chris Whiting (Chair of Newcastle University Carers Network) amongst other members. Please follow us on Twitter and Linked In for further project updates and also check our the podcast series ‘The Daddy Leave Diaries’ hosted by Jeremy Davies exploring my experiences of Shared Parental Leave in 2022:  


Yours in community and solidarity!

Mark and Ana

Parents and Carers are organising within HEIs: can they help make academia more humane?

Parents and Carers are organising within HEIs: can they help make academia more humane?

All parents are carers, but not all carers are parents. Together, they have a common experience of caring for dependent family  and friends that does not fit the individualised, neoliberal model of university staff or students. Parents and carers cannot fully commit themselves to their work, nor does their working day fit neatly into the 9-5. Time and energy are resources most of us lack, which leads to an irreconcilable problem. In a sector where high quality outputs are mandatory and time is hyper-pressurised, what do this majority group of carers do to cope? Our emergent research findings suggest many volunteer their time to organise and form solidarity communities. Importantly, the way they are organising may help us realise Maja Korica’s the aspiration of ‘a more humane academia’.

The UK HEI context for Parents and Carers Networks

With HEIs in tow to managerialist practices of targets and measurement, you could be forgiven for expecting that a ‘Parents and Carers Network’ (PCN) will represent yet another example of ‘Diversity Management’ strategy contributing to what Sara Ahmed described as ‘diversity fatigue’. The instrumentalization of diversity work has been critiqued in recent years  as sometimes guilty of reproducing the problems of unequal work intensification (see Athena Swan paper by Tzanakou & Pearce, 2019). Metrics are prioritised to set benchmarks, identify progress and, purportedly, to make people, departments, and institutions accountable. The majority of PCNs we have identified so far are informally organised (i.e. grassroots by members for members). Like other similar ‘diversity networks’ such as LGBTQ networks, they typically prioritise unmeasurable community-based support and knowledge sharing. The distinction for PCNs is they can represent a ‘majority group’ within HEIs.

Why do they exist?

Given parents and carers represent a majority group of staff in HEIs, you might expect their needs would already be adequately supported. However, as the UK HEI sector was entering the first Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, stark shortfalls in existing arrangements were exacerbated. As all staff faced an unprecedented disintegration of the boundaries between work and home responsibilities, this was especially unmanageable for parents and carers. Messages circulated from VCs and senior management to assure staff that ‘good enough is good enough’, yet deadlines still loomed and pressure remained high. Amidst this tumultuous time, PCNs grew exponentially to offer mutual support and solidarity to their stressed and exhausted members. Addressing a fundamental human need for connection, empathy and care, PCNs operate against the grain of individual outputs, and may have the potential to change higher education for the better.

Researching PCNs

Our BA Leverhulme funded project aims to better understand the nature of these networks across the UK through critical, community engaged scholarship, meaning we will work alongside existing networks to learn from and develop a burgeoning national network of these networks. A recently completed mapping exercise, led by Dr Nosheen Khan, has systematically approached 115 UK HEIs (Times Higher Education List) to enquire whether a PCN exists in their institution, and if so, what its structure is, and how it operates. So far, 64 have responded and 51 have confirmed some form of parent/carer/family network (or combination thereof) exists. We asked for more details and 40 institutions responsed to explain the nature of their network(s). Their answers surprised us, not least due to our expectation that time poor university staff would rely on workload hours to maintain a network.

Of the 40 respondents, only four were formally created and organised (i.e. by HR). Though some benefits are apparent to this approach, including resources such as workload hours and funding, it is clear most networks organise differently. The remaining networks are informally organised, growing through the initiative and enthusiasm of their volunteer staff and student members. This early finding suggests that staff with caring responsibilities are not being adequately supported by their institutions and have taken it upon themselves to address this gap. In fact, the most common answer to explain why these networks have formed is that staff and students require extra guidance and support to balance the competing responsibilities of work and care. Clearly, despite renewed appreciation of the value of care during the height of COVID-19, a culture of individualism continues to promote the ‘ideal worker’ paradigm where family life is checked in at the door and the ‘work hat’ is put on.

Is the future humane?

We believe that our early findings of informally organised PCN communities show that these local and national networks could offer academia a pathway to grow a more humane, family friendly sector. This project aims to better understand how these networks have developed and what motivated their members. We will not shy away from difficult questions such as how diverse these networks really are, and do they risk being appropriated by the diversity management machine? We will be conducting further empirical research to learn more.

Parents and Carers Networks, as a a UK wide community, can be an integral part of the ‘more humane academia’ by normalising family and care within HEIs to resist individualism. We encourage readers to make enquiries about Parents and Carers networks within their institution. We know some PCNs are only just forming so the time is now to be part of this. If your institution does not have one yet, you can start a conversation about starting a new network. Please get in touch to learn more.


(This was published in WonkHE: