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Childcare on campus – one size doesn’t fit all

Astha Rajvanshi investigates childcare at Sydney University.

In February 2013, Alison and her partner MJ received the news that they were pregnant. The day before semester started, Alison’s long-awaited application for Honours was approved. After making the decision to study part-time with the baby, Alison worked for the rest of the year to save enough money to be able to afford childcare.

Newly born Evelyn arrived in November, and Alison and MJ soon adapted to walking around campus with their baby in tow, juggling study and parenting. “We kind of thought that we could handle it … we’d swap to half days, and that’s how we got to know a lot of parents in the Parents’ Room who are also studying,” Alison said.

As the semester progressed and their workload increased, however, the couple found that the balancing act became more difficult to handle – the imperative of finding childcare became more apparent, and so did the realities of actually finding childcare.

“Essentially you need to put your name on the list before your baby is born if you need childcare straight after, and often there’s a really long wait period,” the couple explained. “The list that we first signed up to was Boundary Lane, which then relocated, but we’re still on that list with about 50 or 60 people ahead of us. Since then we’ve put our name on heaps and heaps of lists”.

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It is not possible to know what percent of the current student body requires support with childcare at Sydney University as it remains unclear whether National statistics on childrearing apply to students. The picture is further complicated due to the lack of information on what proportion of students with children have external sources of support for their childcare needs.

In 2008, a study by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that during the first year of study, 4% of university entrants experienced difficulties due to caring for children or other family members. If these statistics were to accurately reflect the student demographic at the University of Sydney, there would be approximately 2,000 students who currently face parenting troubles while trying to study.

Currently, the University does not provide childcare on campus, though it is loosely affiliated with a number of childcare facilities that are independently run on both the Camperdown and Cumberland campuses. The few childcare centres located on, or near the university campuses are open to students and staff, along with the members of the general community. In Camperdown and Darlington, these include Boundary Lane Children’s Centre, Union Child Care Centre and Carillon Ave Child Care Centre, whereas Laurel Tree House resides in Glebe. Priority is usually given to students on waiting lists at each of the centres, with discounts for those with Access Cards from the University of Sydney Union. Despite having priority, however, a wait for children under two years of age can usually last a few years, with the length of time depending on a range of factors including the age, days of care needed, and the date of application. Aside from the wait, prices can also vary between $85-95 a day to $105-110 a day.

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Alison and MJ finally found openings for their baby at two different centres near Sydney University after a long wait. To save money on rent, they live in Earlwood and embark on a daily 45-minute bike ride to the childcare centre, with their baby in a carrier attached to the front of the bike.

Despite the laborious routine and travelling time, they are grateful for the burden that childcare providers take off their shoulders. “Childcare workers are just amazing for the job they do. Anyone who’s had one screaming kid vying for their attention would know, and they’ve got four to a person,” said MJ.

While childcare centres provide a caring, home-like atmosphere for children, the current state of childcare provision at tertiary education institutions is yet to fully accommodate the needs of women who bear children, often by virtue of institutionalised practices in teaching and learning. At universities, having a child is still, in some sense, seen as a privilege rather than a right.

It is broadly unclear who should be responsible for providing childcare support for students on campus. Problems of accessibility and affordability are compounded by the lack of basic facilities and misunderstandings about the special circumstances of students who parent.

For example, University policy dictates that students are not allowed to bring their children to class; these rules can sometimes be waived depending on the lecturer or tutor. Similarly, looking after a child when trying to study in the library can be an arduous task, with disruptions from the baby often being the catalyst for annoyed glances from onlookers. The university also lacks enough private spaces for parents to be able to study with a child, or access to a Parents’ Rooms to rest, change nappies, and breastfeed.

Breastfeeding 2-3 times a day is not possible for Alison, who relies on expressing milk six times a week. “It’s pretty horrible to spend that time with the pump instead of the baby, and it’s probably one of the most intimate times, I think, between mum and child,” she commented. Having a childcare centre run on campus seems unlikely in the near future, but even small changes like providing a cot or comfortable chairs in the Parents’ Room at Fisher Library could make a huge difference for those who rely on these spaces.

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The director of Student Support Services Jordi Austin said that the University currently holds a Childcare Advisory Committee that “pulls together staff and student representatives with the childcare providers to discuss current supply and demand, changes to legislation that may impact on childcare provision, raise emerging trends or issues for discussion”. In the past, this committee has lobbied for priority access and the availability
of parenting facilities.

Alongside the committee, a Child Care Information website, an Information Officer and a free Parents Network are in place to assist students and staff in navigating around local childcare options. Austin said that each year the site attracts more than 10, 000 unique visitors.

Moving forward, the committee will develop a childcare demand study which will be promoted in August to staff and students in order to “determine if the anecdotal need for increased childcare spaces applies to our staff and student body”. Austin said that in particular, the Camperdown campus was situated within an inner west area of ‘baby boom’.

From the data collected by the early stages of the study, it was found that international students often have the most difficulty in finding appropriate care close to the university. “Every year we will have a handful of newly arrived international students who have yet to find appropriate care for their children, and who need to start study. We are trying to see if this is a small proportion of a larger problem, or a confined issue which could be more properly addressed through small adjustments in allocation principles to better cater for this group,” Austin said.

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For most parents, there is never an ideal time to have a baby – the challenges of parenting don’t get any easier after graduation or when one gets a job.

For Alison and MJ, “whatever challenges come, they never become all-consuming given the presence of [Evelyn]”. While parenting and studying has been difficult, the couple recognise that they have started prioritising certain things and planning their days in advance in adjusting to the life of being parents.

At the end of the day, their relief comes from seeing their baby: “just knowing that, no matter what the day you have, you go and pick him up from childcare, and he’s flapping his arms and carrying on,” MJ said.

Recognising the different experiences of students, including those with parenting responsibilities, is yet to become a bigger priority on campus. When it comes to childcare, a broad brushstroke approach from the University’s provision of support services to its students has not yet managed to fully tackle the needs of young mothers and fathers who don’t believe in choosing between family life and pursuing higher education.