When Kristin Loheyde was pregnant and tried to sign up her child for eventual daycare at the University of British Columbia, where she worked, she assumed she was ahead of the game. But when she called UBC Childcare Services, she discovered how wrong she was. “Oh, most people sign up as soon as they conceive,” is what she was told. Her panicked reaction: “I’m four months pregnant and I’m already behind!” She went on a waiting list, with 1,600 other parents.
Still waiting when her maternity leave ended 17 months later and facing a city-wide childcare shortage, Ms. Loheyde, a single mother, placed her son with a nanny who let the kids in her care play with plastic guns and watch soap operas, against Ms. Loheyde’s wishes. When he was almost two, her son was finally accepted into UBC’s childcare system.
Ms. Loheyde, a UBC development officer, shared her story at the first national conference on childcare and postsecondary education, “It Takes a University,” held at UBC last May. Hers was one story among many. Conference participants, representing colleges and universities in six provinces, heard from professors who regularly brought their toddlers along during office hours, PhD candidates who fell behind because they lacked parental leave, and undergraduate students who dropped out when they failed to secure childcare.
“The lack of affordable and accessible childcare on university campuses is a huge issue when it comes to access to education,” said conference organizer Amanda Reaume, executive director of the Antigone Foundation, which publishes a magazine about women and politics and co-sponsored the conference. The student groups most affected are often those that face the most barriers to higher education, she added: for instance, 33 percent of aboriginal students at universities, and 45 percent at colleges, are parents.
The decision to have children poses unique challenges for professors, the conference was told. Vivien Measday, in UBC’s faculty of land and food systems, said she couldn’t take a full year of maternity leave because there was no way to extend the funding period of her CIHR grant, and she worried about falling behind. She too turned to sub-par private care when she couldn’t access UBC Childcare Services. “As a female faculty member,” she said, “I felt that if a faculty member can’t get daycare, the university isn’t supporting the idea that women should have careers.”
Despite the frustrations of Dr. Measday and Ms. Loheyde, UBC is said to be a leader in providing childcare to students, staff and faculty. Its childcare service – 460 spots in 21 programs – is high-quality, affordable and discounted further for students. It is set to expand, with 48 new spots opening in 2011, said program director Darcelle Cottons, as part of the centre’s goal of caring for 1,000 children. But however fast they add spaces, the waiting list never shortens significantly.
Two- to four-year waiting lists are standard at Canadian universities, and the lack of daycare spaces is becoming a major hurdle for recruiting and retaining faculty. Lisa Castle, associate vice-president, human resources, at UBC, said, “One of the most significant issues I am told about, repeatedly, is that childcare is an important determinant in whether they join or stay at UBC.”
Even in Quebec, with its government-subsidized childcare program, parents face up to four-year waits for university- or community-based childcare, according to Dahlia Elshafie, who has studied the issue in her role as vice-president, academic, of McGill’s postgraduate student society. Affordability is less of a hurdle since childcare costs a maximum of $7 per day per child, and students who qualify as low-income may be entitled to free childcare. Yet, with the tight regulation of childcare facilities, parents often don’t even have the option of placing their child in sub-par care temporarily if they can’t get a subsidized spot.
Lack of childcare spaces sometimes puts students and faculty in competition for spaces, said Ms. Elshafie. At Concordia University, childcare spots are sometimes promised to attract new faculty members, making it more difficult for students to access care. “It pits the interests of students against faculty, which is horrible,” she said.
Although accessible childcare is on the radar of universities across the country, there’s no consensus on who should be providing the service. UBC got into the childcare business almost by accident in the early 1990s, when it took over operation of seven non-profit facilities on campus that were unable to negotiate lease terms. At Dalhousie University, the student union is considering offering the service. At McGill, graduate students are pushing for maternity and paternity leave funded by the university, with the goal of eventually securing provincial government funding.
Some universities have turned to private childcare providers. The for-profit company Kids and Co. operates at several universities, including Calgary, Toronto, Regina and Wilfrid Laurier.
“Private companies are tempting to universities because they offer a quick fix,” said Mab Oloman of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. But, she said, “a significant body of evidence” shows that commercial childcare doesn’t provide the same quality care as non-profit or public systems, and in Australia, “where the government let the market rip, it has cost parents and the public purse more.”
Conference organizers are adapting the presentations into a white paper that will identify the needs surrounding childcare in postsecondary institutions, as well as potential solutions.