At just seven weeks old, the University of Sydney’s youngest law student sits quietly in the back row of a contracts seminar in the new Law School Building. Like many students, Pippi naps during class, giggles at inappropriate moments and occasionally throws a tantrum and needs to leave the room to calm down. But most importantly, the newborn is allowed to feed constantly throughout class, while her mum, Olympia Walker-Galt, listens, learns and lulls her daughter to sleep to the sound of the lecturer’s unintentional lullaby.
“If I hadn’t been able to breastfeed in class, it definitely would have made me feel guilty about trying to juggle work and uni and children,” says Olympia, who is taking her postgraduate studies part time.
“Because of the way the part-time Juris Doctor is structured, I would have had to defer for a year and it would have felt like I was never going to finish. I kind of assumed that I could feed, but I was concerned about whether I could actually bring her to class with me, but everyone was really positive and supportive when I asked.”
Twenty-eight years earlier and 300 metres away, another mother had quietly nursed her daughter during a tutorial in an upstairs classroom of the Quad. Jill White would go on to lead Sydney’s Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery as Dean, before being awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2011 for services to nursing and midwifery.
But in 1988, she was studying her Masters of Education with her daughter Ally in her arms. “I did it, but whether breastfeeding in class at the time was actually acceptable or not is another question,” Professor White says. “It was the 1980s and society was different, but it was a small postgraduate class, so I did it anyway and despite a few quizzical looks, everyone was fine.”
Unfortunately, not every student’s experience has been so positive. Last year, Kate Bullen had just been appointed Board Director of the University of Sydney Union when she found out she was pregnant. At 22 years old, Kate was admittedly terrified at first, but decided to continue with the pregnancy and contacted the University for advice.
“I rang up the main info line and asked who I should talk to about breastfeeding on campus and the person didn’t transfer me,” she tells me. “She just said ‘I strongly advise you not to breastfeed publicly, there are rooms for that sort of thing’. I was really angry, I mean of course the legal right of every parent is that they can feed their children anywhere, anytime, but I was too scared to confront them about it.”
The University of Sydney was accredited as a breastfeeding friendly workplace last year in recognition of the support it has in place for mothers who choose to combine breastfeeding and work. Disappointingly, the detailed guidelines for breastfeeding and expressing on campus are only available on the staff intranet, which is not accessible to students.
Amanda Volpatti from the Australian Breastfeeding Association says the accreditation is awarded based on support available to staff, rather than students. “Accreditation is based around three criteria: having private spaces for mothers to feed or express; allowing them time to do so; and workplaces need to have a clear communication strategy in place to build a supportive culture,” she says.
“The University of Sydney’s breastfeeding policy is staff focused, not student focused, but anecdotally there is support for students who need to breastfeed in class. Some universities do have specific breastfeeding guidelines for students, but I would love to see students breastfeeding in class become more commonplace. Open communication is key to normalising the practice for mothers and other students as well.”
A search of the University of Sydney’s website reveals a two-paragraph document recognising that some students will need to breastfeed or express on campus and it directs them to the Equity and Diversity Strategy Centre. The statement is indeterminate and lacks detailed information, which presumably could be uncovered by contacting the specified support agency. But not all students with newborn babies are getting that far, most likely because they can’t find the document, or possibly, because they don’t want to rock the boat.
SRC casework and policy manager James Campbell can understand why students would be apprehensive. “Perhaps I am being a bit harsh, but I think the University’s policy on children is rather unwelcoming,” he says. The policy starts by reaffirming that the University is a family-friendly organisation, but then details the “limited and controlled circumstances” in which children are permitted. “I think the University should be progressive about children on campus and people should be able to cope without freaking out,” says Campbell.
A University spokesperson confirmed a parent or carer may be permitted to bring a child to lectures or tutorials for the purpose of breastfeeding, but only with permission from the person conducting the class.
Professor White says this policy needs to change. “Women shouldn’t have to ask permission, it should be more of a courtesy of informing the tutor,” she says. “There are some circumstances obviously where it’s not appropriate, for instance you wouldn’t have a baby in the clinical labs. But as long as there are no workplace health and safety issues it should absolutely be an expectation that you can breastfeed in class, but a courtesy to inform the tutor that you are going to. That’s all the policy needs to say.”
The University has 11 parents’ rooms located across its four campuses and touts their high quality as being integral to its accreditation as a breastfeeding friendly workplace. Louise Corney says the Women’s Room in Manning House was a lifesaver. “I used the room when I was pregnant with my second child and it was pretty nice and comfortable,” she says. “There’s a couch there to use and accessible power points and internet.”
“Your body really gets run down in the first stages of pregnancy and having a private space when you’re feeling under the weather is a pretty big deal, especially with morning sickness. But I did find that the parents’ facilities were often far away from where I was on campus and when you’re pregnant, you move slowly and getting places is pretty hard and quite tiring. Also the women’s room is not just a space for mothers, it’s used by all kinds of different women, so it’s not really appropriate for breastfeeding or nursing when it’s busy or loud.”
Professor White agrees there needs to be more parents’ rooms spread generously and strategically across the campus: “I have to admit it came as a shock to me when I discovered there wasn’t a parents’ room in every faculty.”
“During my tenure as Dean, we always had a parents’ room in the nursing faculty. Saying there’s one in a building that’s a 25 minute walk away is just not acceptable.”
Parents who are studying at the University of Sydney also have priority at five-day care centres near the Camperdown and Cumberland campuses, including two discounted union centres. But the Access Card discount is less than $5 a day at most, and according to Louise, you have to be very lucky to get a spot.
“I was applying for on campus childcare before I started studying and we were on the waiting list for a year, but that’s pretty standard,” says Louise. “I kept calling and asking, ‘Is there anything yet? Is there anything yet?’ and eventually I got a spot for my daughter, but lots of people don’t end up with spaces, especially if their children are under two.”
“Because of mandatory carer ratios, most centres don’t have the space for any more than eight children under two, so that makes the waiting list pretty much pointless. They give priority to students and that’s great, but if there aren’t the spaces, there aren’t the spaces.”
When Louise had her second child in 2014, she was unable to secure another spot. “Because we couldn’t get both of our kids into the same centre, we had to go wherever we could find two places and it turned out to be pretty dodgy. There was a bad standard of care and they didn’t register any of our attendances with the Department of Education, which meant we had to fight to get our rebate. It was really crap and we had to get out of there as fast as possible.”
Louise discontinued her studies in 2013 and admits she’s unlikely to go back. “I was studying an accelerated post-graduate course, so I could apply to have a reduced load, but they had a policy of no part-time,” says Louise. “There was a sense that everyone should just keep up and if you can’t manage with kids then just don’t do it. But if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s not like you can stay up all night drinking coffee.”
“I’m in a professional job now that I’m happy with, but I did want to resume my studies at the time. It just wasn’t accessible. It’s not something I pushed for because you can see pretty clearly from the outset how difficult it was going to be.”
Louise isn’t alone. Kate is in her fifth year of a Bachelor of Arts, but is having to reconsider her studies after the birth of her daughter.
“While I was pregnant with Eleanor in the first semester of last year, I was enrolled in subjects, but my health took a toll during pregnancy,” Kate says. “Two of my tutors were really encouraging and supportive and I was able to get extensions on assignments without much ado. However, one of my tutors actually asked me whether I should even be at uni and I think my confidence took a massive hit after that, so I ended up discontinuing.”
Eleanor will be one year old in June this year, but Kate is struggling to get her degree back on track.
“I’m having to re-evaluate my options because I haven’t been able to secure a childcare place for my daughter, so I’m trying to juggle schedules with my partner, who is also a student,” Kate says. “I don’t have any other family in Sydney and there are nowhere near enough places at campus childcare facilities.”
“It means Eleanor has to come to campus with me sometimes and I have been able to use changing rooms, but when I was expressing I never visited campus because I didn’t feel comfortable.”
A University of Sydney Union survey of students with children last year found 68 per cent rely on childcare to complete their studies, but 93 per cent don’t use campus childcare centres. Those who did were on the waiting list for between 14 and 20 months.
One parent reported having to breastfeed in a toilet cubicle because she was unable to find a parents’ room, while another was consistently late to class because their childcare centre didn’t open until 8am, the same time their tutorial started. Louise says she struggled to find information when trying to apply to have her study load reduced.
“There was nothing easily available and it would have been good just to have some information about the process so I don’t have to jump through so many hoops,” she says.“It was also somewhat dependent on the person who reviewed my application, who luckily had a pretty positive attitude towards women and pregnancy.”
“But if it had been someone who didn’t understand the experience or didn’t have a particularly feminist outlook, they could have easily said no. There’s no guide or standard for decisions.”
According to Professor White, no student should be disadvantaged in this way. “It comes down to a lack of communication. I don’t believe it’s a lack of willingness, I really don’t.”
“The University’s policies and support services need to be much more widely publicised, I mean it’s not okay to be changing bub’s nappy on benches or toilets because of a lack of information. I don’t see reluctance on the part of the University, but what do you tackle first? There’s so much that’s been done and there’s so much still to do,” she says.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association talks a lot about the business case for creating a breastfeeding and parent friendly workplace. Helping mothers transition back to work means their skills are retained and time and money are saved by not having to retrain new staff. Workplaces also benefit from the savings associated with a healthier and happier workforce, as well as the reputational value of being a family-friendly employer.
But what is the business case for family-friendly universities? Louise believes it’s a long-term investment, rather than an instant return. “If we don’t support students with children, we are going to miss out on great thoughts, great brains and great progress,” she says.
“This is a broader societal issue. For my first year of returning to work, every cent of the money I made went into childcare. I actually didn’t make any money after paying for childcare. We need support and cheap, accessible and quality childcare. It needs to be quality, because women don’t need to feel any guiltier about putting their children into childcare.”
Olympia is incredibly grateful for the support she’s received and is likely to be able to complete her studies on-time and uninterrupted. “If it wasn’t for the support of my family and the law faculty, I would be on a very different path.”