Childcare costs eat deeply into pay packet

July 7, 2006

Universities want to retain their best staff, but are they doing enough to help academics balance work and family life? Chloe Stothard reports

Fees for university nurseries are equal to a quarter of the salary of a mid-range junior academic. A Times Higher survey of university nurseries found that the median monthly charge was £586.30.

This is almost a quarter of the monthly salary of a mid-scale lecturer on £30,000 a year. Most academics in or around this earnings bracket tend to be in their early to mid-thirties when many people have young families and are in need of childcare.

Almost all the nurseries at the 37 institutions that replied to the survey were oversubscribed. However, universities remain far better at providing nursery places for children of their staff than other employers.

Most universities in the survey had a nursery, whereas only 5 per cent of employers provide such a service, according to the National Day Nurseries Association.

About half the institutions in the survey sell vouchers to staff, which are free of tax and national insurance and can be spent at any nursery that accepts them. Parents can save tax and national insurance on £243 a month of their nursery fees through the scheme, depending on their income.

The amount they save depends on how much tax they pay.

At other institutions, employees save tax and national insurance on the whole of their university nursery fees, which are deducted directly from salaries.

Many also alert parents to government childcare grants for three and four-year-olds supplied through the local authorities.

Nursery opening hours vary from mornings only to 8am to 6pm. Some nurseries provided holiday cover while others opened only during term time.

A handful of institutions offered other help, such as holiday playschemes for older children, means-tested help with nursery fees and assistance with costs for out-of-hours childcare.

Some universities charged above the national average nursery fee of Pounds 624.80* or charged above the average fees for their region as given in the annual nursery survey carried out by the Day Care Trust charity. Four institutions that responded to the survey did not have a university nursery or a local one offering discounts to staff.

Fees varied enormously, from £825 a month at Middlesex University to £605 at Hertfordshire University for children under two; and from Pounds 459.80 at Southampton University to £704 at the University of East Anglia for over-threes. The cheapest nursery was at Brighton University, although its lowest fee of £347.60 was means-tested.

London Metropolitan University also offered means-tested fees of £413.60 to £585.20 for under-threes and £365.20 to £528 for over-threes*.

A spokesperson for Brighton said: "The fees are kept low because they are subsidised by the university. It's fair to say it would be seen as one of the tools for staff retention, and over the years there has been a commitment by the university to provide the service."

Paisley University, one of the cheaper nurseries in the survey, speculated that its costs might be lower than others because it runs the nursery itself rather than contracting out to a private firm.

Higher education gender equality groups said that childcare costs were likely to be high, and flexible working as well as childcare was needed to help academics to progress up the career ladder after becoming parents.

Caroline Fox, programme manager of the Athena Project, which works for women in science and technology, said: "Universities are very good in terms of their policies on flexible working, but it is implementation of them that matters and that is down to heads of department."

She added that university nursery hours might not reflect the hours worked by experimental scientists. She said the costs of good nurseries were likely to be high, but parents would rather pay more for good, on-site care than save money and get a poor service.

Erica Halvorsen, interim director of the Equality Challenge Unit, said that the strained state of university budgets meant that it was unlikely that more money would go into childcare.

She asked: "Should the Government look at this more closely? Should it put dedicated funds towards (childcare) for public service workers who they know perhaps aren't earning as much as people in the private sector?"

* Where nurseries supplied half-day, daily or weekly rates, we calculated monthly fees on the basis of 22 days of childcare per month

£3.40 a day

Staff at Montreal University enjoy cheap care for their children all year round.

The university nursery is part of a state childcare programme with 200,000 places across Quebec.

Care in the 80-place nursery for six-month to five-year-olds costs £3.40 a day, far cheaper than any of the UK nurseries in our survey.

But brothers and sisters have priority, so there is a waiting list of 150 people who may not get a place for two years. For older children there is a school holiday camp run by the sports faculty that costs about £68 a week.

Juggling work and children while spending a quarter of pay on care: the lot of academic parents

Paloma Gay y Blasco

Paloma Gay y Blasco and her husband, Huon Wardle, are both lecturers at St Andrews University. They have to make tough choices because of a lack of affordable childcare. They have a five-year-old son and a daughter who is two.

Dr Gay y Blasco started off working full time but found that this was "completely exhausting". She now works part time because she cannot find an affordable nursery that can care for her son for the full day.

Dr Gay y Blasco spends £850 a month - about two thirds of her salary - on childcare for her son, who goes to a state nursery until 3pm, and her daughter, who is too young to get a state place and so goes to a private nursery.

When Dr Gay y Blasco worked full time she would leave work at 3pm to collect her son when his nursery closed. She would then stay with him and work at home until he went to bed.

When her husband came home from work at about 7pm or 8pm to take care of their son she returned to the office to work until 10pm.

She said: "You do an 11 or 12-hour day and end up knackered because you cannot keep up and just cannot afford more childcare." But going part time hit the family's income.

"We already earn very little, and childcare is very expensive," she said.

The couple try to split childcare equally, but fear this is likely to hit her husband's standing in the research assessment exercise.

"I can claim time for being on maternity leave and working part time for the RAE but he can't. His contribution to the RAE has to be a full contribution," she said.

"We did ask the university to split the adoption leave between us when we adopted our daughter, but they said it wouldn't be possible.

"We have to put in as many hours as we can to satisfy the RAE, but unless childcare becomes more affordable and accessible, how can we do that?"

Dr Gay y Blasco said the department had been sympathetic to their needs but the university did not see childcare as its responsibility. She added:

"When I compare us with people who have no children or a partner at home they are way ahead of us because they do not have the same childcare constraints."

Gillian Howie

Gillian Howie, a single parent and senior lecturer at Liverpool University, has two children aged six and eight and has difficulty finding affordable childcare after school and in the holidays.

There is a university play scheme but it fills up rapidly, and private child minding costs about £80 per child a week.

She estimates that she pays about £1,000 a year in out-of-school childcare.

"I have found that vacation cover is an issue, and it is about what time you drop them off and pick them up. If you were to pick your children up after school, you couldn't do an academic day," she said.

"There is a real problem with vacations because of the amount of work we are expected to do - go to conferences or do research or edit and write in that time, and there is a real problem with provision of affordable play schemes."

Dr Howie fears the university's plans to introduce car-parking charges will force her to pay an extra £400, but she says the car is essential to ferry her children to childcare.

There was no university nursery when the children were younger so she had to use private care that cost about £450 a month.

"At the time, I needed help from my parents to manage the mortgage and nursery fees. But juggling work was easier when the children were at nursery than it was subsequently because you could leave them there for the day and there was no problem with holidays or half-term."

She added that research had shown that women in senior posts tended not to have children.

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