Parents left in limbo as university plans on-site nursery closure

Queen Mary says facility has been underused and is losing it hundreds of thousands of pounds a year

June 12, 2024
Source: iStock/Quique Olivar Gomez

Queen Mary University of London is facing a backlash against plans to shut its on-site nursery later this year, with parents fearing it will remove a “crucial lifeline”.

The east London institution cited financial problems for the decision, with the nursery losing £230,000 last year as working practices changed after the pandemic.

petition opposing the plans has gathered more than 1,500 signatures, with parents warning that they face “huge disruption” and a “scramble” to find an alternative childcare arrangements.

The site, known as Westfield Nursery, is earmarked for closure in August, at which point its 19 members of staff will be made redundant.

Open to university staff, students and the wider community, the nursery, which has operated since 1991, had 68 children enrolled at its last Ofsted inspection in March, which rated its provision as “good”.

Anna Raute, a senior lecturer in the School of Economics and Finance, whose two-year-old son has attended the nursery since he was six months old, said the university had previously “led the way” in offering nursery provision. Now, when its Russell Group competitors have caught up and most provide some sort of on-site childcare, Queen Mary’s decision to shut its nursery risked holding back the careers of its staff, particularly female academics.

The facility, she said, was specialised at caring for children from a very young age to account for the typically short maternity leaves researchers choose to take, many of whom will not be able to find similar provision nearby and so may have to drop hours or take leave as a result.

She said several of the staff members and students who use the service were from overseas and did not have family nearby to help with childcare, so it was a “lifeline” for them, particularly as it could be paid for via a salary sacrifice scheme, which made it cheaper than other services.

Offering access to a nursery had been a strong draw in recruiting and retaining staff, Dr Raute said, adding that the facility had also been key for the university’s outreach work in the local community.

Campus resource: From prams to postgraduate degrees – how universities can support student parents

But a Queen Mary spokesperson claimed that the facility was being underused. “We have taken the very difficult decision to close our university nursery,” they said in a statement.

“Since the pandemic, work patterns have changed and the number of children attending the nursery has consistently been significantly below capacity. Currently, out of a total workforce of over 5,700, only 23 members of staff are using this in-house service, resulting in a loss last year of over £230,000.

“We are doing everything we can to help the parents, guardians and carers of all our registered children find alternative arrangements.” The figures cited by the university have been contested by those opposing the closure.

A campaign to keep the nursery open is being run by the trade union Unison, which has argued that the “university has failed to give sufficient notice of the closure”.

“Parents are worried they’ll be unable to keep their jobs or continue with their studies given the lack of affordable childcare available locally,” the union said.

Anastasia Malama, co-chair of Unison’s Queen Mary branch, said the nursery “allows parents to balance a busy work or study schedule while still caring for their families”.

“The closure would have a significant impact on the local community and nursery staff, most of whom are women. The university must explore all other options before taking such a drastic decision,” she said.

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Reader's comments (1)

It's a real shame that QMUL continues to communicate in bad faith by passing off these lies. The reality is that the nursery is operating at over 90% capacity, well over the national average. Furthermore, the losses are a direct result of their own poor policy decisions not the viability of the nursery, for example they routinely delay permission to hire new staff which results in exorbitant monthly agency fees. The reality appears to simply be that they want the building for other purposes and they have manufactured a thin financial argument to justify evicting 68 children and firing 19 highly trained and exceptional staff. Lastly, it should be said that they have done exactly nothing to "help parents, carers and guardians find alternative arrangements". They have simply provided a hastily Googled list of nurseries within a few miles of the campus which all have wait lists several times longer than the short notice provided and, in at least one case, is known to provide a substandard level of care.