Creche barriers

March 28, 1997

A lack of childcare can limit choice for staff and students. Katrina Wishart looks at whether things have improved sinceour last survey almost a decade ago

The campaign to create a nursery for Cambridge University began 21 years ago with "riots outside Senate House". Yet today, despite there being at least 400 student parents in the city, with 700 children between them, university women's officer Denise Burford says the campaign is "back to stage one".

Burford cites "collegiate problems" as the main reason why Cambridge still has no childcare provision, with a recent feasibility study finding some colleges saying "no" because they felt the costs would be too great.

The fact that Cambridge is still largely male-dominated also plays a part. At Trinity, the largest college, only 3 per cent of students and none of the teaching staff are female. Consequently childcare is just not seen as a priority. Burford argues :"The lack of childcare facilities may be stopping people applying - it's an equal opportunities issue."

But this is an issue that exists throughout higher education. For most aspiring students considerations of location, course content, reputation and so on are quite enough to contend with when deciding where to apply. But the sizable minority with small children have also to reckon with childcare. What if the university best suited to you is simply not suited to your child?

A THES survey carried out over the past month shows that a minority of institutions still offer no facilities. Our last survey nine years ago found that one in five universities and polytechnics fell into this category. This year, 12 of the 78 universities responding admitted to offering no facilities.

This apparent improvement should be seen against a wider context in which workplace provision has come under pressure in the private and public sectors, with many employers closing nurseries, dropping plans to open them or increasing charges.

And it is little comfort if your institution has not got a nursery orit has one but your child is not guaranteed a place. The youngest children have the greatest problems, with only 42 universities providing a creche for children under two years and just nine admitting newborns. This is probably because the younger the child, the more expensive it is to provide childcare, requiring, by law, a higher ratio of staff to look after them. Children over five are catered for by only four universities (Lampeter, one of the nine taking newborns, has afterschool provision for children of up to secondary-school age), although many places do offer play-schemes during the holidays.

And even where facilities exist, waiting lists may be two or three times the number of places available. The University of Sunderland has 73 places but a waiting list of 200, half of whom are under-twos. Middlesex has 130 places, but 300 waiting. A similar situation exists at Oxford, which at the time of the 1988 survey had no nursery provision at all. Unlike Cambridge it has since overcome the "collegiate problem" to open two nurseries for college and university staff and students and Oxford University Press employees, but the waiting list remains a problem. There are places for 91 children but over 100 are waiting for the nursery that caters for youngsters from four months to five years. Fern Miller, women's officer at the university, believes students may be losing places while waiting. "Staff can sign up as soon as they find out they are pregnant, a student may arrive at the university with a small child."

Institutions that do manage to accommodate nearly all applicants include Napier, Edinburgh and Aston.

Costs also vary dramatically between institutions. Student parents at Strathclyde pay nothing for a place in the nursery, which is funded by the Students Association. At Queen's, Belfast, the weekly charge is £17 and at Swansea £20. But students at Coventry have to find £65 and those at Reading and Bournemouth £62.50. Charges of £50 per week, a substantial amount for almost any student, are commonplace. Staff have to pay a little more, with Brighton and London Guildhall charging on an income-related basis.

These differences are largely dependent on the extent to which universities or, in many cases, student unions (which have often led campaigns for adequate child-care provision) provide financial backing. Most universities make means-tested contributions to student costs, and some make direct contributions - Keele, for instance, provides 90 per cent. Other subsidies include Aberdeen and Bournemouth providing rent-free accommodation for the nursery, while Hertfordshire pays rent, overheads and the salaries of two nursery workers. Staffordshire meets the annual deficit - £79,000 last year - of its nursery.

But not everybody is happy with their university's efforts. Georgina Newson from Reading University Student Union believes that Reading falls short: "Despite our (student union) facilities being the only childcare facility on campus, the university is hesitant to provide us with a loan to facilitate any development ... the university advertises the nursery as a provision but the students union feels there is little commitment to the financial support of childcare for staff or students."

So is it all bad news? Far from it. If you can get a place for your child and afford the fees, the chances are the nursery will be open when you need it. Ninety per cent remain open during school holidays, and most have standard daily hours - 8.30am-5.30pm, with a few open until 6.30pm. This is adequate for most parents, although the respondent from the University of East Anglia said: "Our student parents feel we should offer longer hours to cover evening lectures."

And the broad picture is one of improvement. The Lancaster University respondent said: "We have expanded greatly from one room when we first started in the 1960s to a whole centre - one of the largest university facilities for children." Attitudes in general are much more positive. London Business School and the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside may not have nurseries, but they have at least looked seriously at the issue. An LBS survey found insufficient demand, while Lincolnshire and Humberside found adequate local provision.

Lack of resources or accommodation, rather than lack of interest, explains others unable to provide nurseries. Dugald Cameron, director of the Glasgow School of Art, said: "The school, although endeavouring to provide such facilities, is hampered by lack of suitable space and funding." Dundee explains that its inability to take under-twos is down to lack of space.

Cost remains a major obstacle to expansion, but some universities are making the investment. Aston has recently added a £30,000 extension to its nursery, while a lottery grant is helping Lampeter to take children.

The overall picture has im-proved greatly in the past decade, but there is still a long way to go, particularly for children under two. Demand is likely to go on rising and, unless it is met, students who are also parents will be denied choices available to others.

Nine institutions with no nursery:

Cambridge University

London Business School

City University

University of Buckingham

De Montfort University

University of St Andrews

Edinburgh College of Art

Glasgow School of Art

University of Lincolnshire & Humberside


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