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Universities offer support for student-parents

Universities are increasingly working to respond to their communities’ calls for daycare centres.


Parents studying in higher education programs face unique challenges to their success that can sometimes keep them from graduating. These students want to make sure that certain services aimed at helping them continue to improve.

In 2008, a group of mothers studying at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) formed a support group for student-parents, called the Comité de soutien aux parents étudiants (CSPE). It obtained official recognition from the university in 2011.

“Official status allowed the CSPE to collect an optional automatic contribution from all students,” explained the group’s coordinator, Annie Noël de Tilly. Thanks to those contributions, the CSPE was able to fund its biggest project: the creation of a daycare centre, which opened in 2015. Today, it has space for 60 kids.

“We are now fighting for UQAM to adopt a family policy that would give student-parents an official status,” Ms. Noël de Tilly added. This means they could access the same university bursaries and benefits as full-time students even when studying part-time or make special arrangements if they miss a class or exam because their child is sick.

“We were receiving many requests for a drop-in daycare from parents who have occasional [child care] needs,” she said. “In September 2021, we opened one for children aged one to 11.”

A room with children's toys in it.
The daycare centre at Université du Québec à Montréal, created by students for students, opened in 2015. Photo courtesy of Nathalie St-Pierre.

Quebec pilot project

The CSPE’s drop-in daycare was one of nine selected for a campus drop-in daycare pilot project initiated by the Quebec government this past February. In all, seven universities and two CEGEPs were involved.

“Some were already in operation, and others were looking for funding to improve their services,” said Quebec’s Minister of Families Suzanne Roy. “They meet a real need, so we decided to work with student associations and community groups to extend the offer to other campuses.” The Quebec government will spend $1.9 million over two years on the project, with its Ministry of Higher Education also contributing.

Parents will be able to pay for a block of time rather than for a full day or semester at a time. For example, at the Université de Montréal, a block of four-and-a-half hours will cost $5.50 and a full day is $11.

“A lot more women attend university and I think that this makes institutions much more sensitive to student-parents’ needs,” Ms. Roy said. “Even though parental responsibilities are split more fairly now, they still rest largely on women’s shoulders, and there are also single mothers in university and CEGEP.”

Essential services

Founded in 1972, the Child Care Centre – a service of the McMaster Students Union (MSU) – has 47 daycare spaces. The centre gives priority to the children of undergraduate students, followed by those of graduate students, staff and faculty as well as the community at large.

“We’d love to expand it because demand is strong but there isn’t enough staff or suitable space on campus,” said the centre’s director, Miranda Vanderveen.

MSU also operates a health centre for the Ontario university’s student community, which provides support, space and products to student-parents free of charge. It includes a private space for breastfeeding and offers nursing supplies and diapers.

“We also offer financial support through our group health plan, including prepaid grocery or pharmacy cards, and we have a service that provides baby food,” said MSU’s vice-president, administration and chief executive officer, Mitchell German.

Boosting accessibility

On campuses outside Quebec, daycare services are generally very expensive for students, but that’s starting to change. Capilano University, which has offered daycare services for over 20 years, recently announced that it had been selected for British Columbia’s $10-a-day daycare program.

“Financially, the difference will be huge for student-parents,” said the university’s president, Paul Dangerfield. “For a child in full-time care, the monthly cost will drop from $1,500 to $200.” Previously, the province provided financial assistance to help some students pay for the service, but it usually topped out at about $300.

Capilano U is also building a new Centre for Childhood Studies on its main campus in North Vancouver. The centre will bring together the school of education and childhood studies as well as a second campus daycare location, increasing the number of daycare spaces from 69 to 143. “The new facilities will allow us to support more student-parents and better train students specializing in education or [early] childhood studies,” the president said.

Lengthy struggle

While some universities have been offering daycare services for decades, others have been resistant to the idea. The Université de Saint-Boniface only opened a child care centre in August 2021. The university’s faculty association had been calling for the space since 1982.

“The board of governors had long held that it wasn’t the institution’s responsibility to babysit the children of students or staff. They weren’t taking into consideration the needs of student-parents – primarily mothers – or the community,” said David Alper, an instructor in the social work department. It took nearly four decades for the university to approve the centre, and all the while this francophone community, located in Manitoba, had a shortage of French-language daycare spaces; at a crucial age for learning language, some francophone children had to attend English daycares.

A turning point came in 2015, after the board of governors rejected the president’s proposal for a daycare centre. Mr. Alper made an offer to his students: they could choose to write a term paper, or they could campaign for the child-care centre’s creation. “I wasn’t expecting that to be the start of a three-and-a-half-year fight to convince the administration,” he said.

Students mobilized, organized awareness campaigns and joined forces with the faculty association and community groups, among others. The committee won a referendum on the question. The student association then pledged $750,000 toward the creation of the daycare. Placed in an untenable position, the board finally relented.

Today, the 7,800-sq. ft. centre is open to students, staff and the community. It has space for 80 children, including 16 infants. “It’s my proudest professional achievement,” Mr. Alper said. “It was a great opportunity for students to learn that together they can effect major social change.”

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  1. Leigh OBrien / April 26, 2023 at 20:45

    Excellent examples of important changes which occur when people advocate for what is needed to fulfill university missions.

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