Many parents, both staff and students, rely on the nursery to provide childcare during the university week. Photo: Anna Evans
Many parents, both staff and students, rely on the nursery to provide childcare during the university week. Photo: Anna Evans

The potential closure of the University of Sussex childcare facilities is putting student-parents under considerable stress and is raising key questions about the institution’s vision of diversity. If the university goes ahead with the closure, it will put an end to an invaluable service which has been available to both student and staff parents for more than 40 years.It would also result in job losses for dedicated employees, some of whom have been employed by Sussex since the beginning. Such a move would seriously damage the university’s reputation as a child-friendly education provider and employer.

The university announced in 2009 that campus services must soon cover their own costs, meaning the nursery was forced to seek funding from an external provider. In late 2010, Bright Horizon was set to takeover the service; however, the recent news that the bid has fallen through came as a shock to both parents and staff. The university is now in talks with potential alternative providers but should no “realistic prospect of success” emerge by 1 April, the Residential, Sport & Trading Services (RSTS) division “would propose for the university’s operation of the facilities to end”.

A Media and Cultural Studies DPhil student and mother of four-year old Aurora says the nursery is an essential part of the University of Sussex’s identity: “Closing it might signify the starting of the dilapidation of the history that made Sussex what it is today: a leading university in the UK and an historical and international reference in the higher education commitment to social justice and public life.”

An impact on study life

Many parent-students came from outside of Brighton. They chose to move here to attend the University of Sussex instead of alternative institutions due to the benefits of campus-based childcare.

These facilities include the nursery, which welcomes children aged four months to three years, and the pre-school, designed for three- to five-year-olds.

These services cater for the needs of children from diverse social and cultural backgrounds while providing a great environment for all children to learn. They are open from 8:30am until 5:30pm; a key benefit to students already facing the major challenge of juggling family life with academic studies.

Hiroko moved all the way from Japan with her four-year-old daughter to study an MSc in Science and Technology Policy. With her husband still working in Japan, she has to cope with lectures throughout the day and maximise her study time until 5:30pm when it is time to pick her daughter up.

“For us, having the nursery on campus is significantly important and if it were not for its existence, I would not have come to study here.”

With no alternative childcare facilities in the Falmer area, a closure of the nursery and pre-school would have serious impacts on the abilities of students to balance their study/family life balance. Indeed, the only option would be to commute to Brighton or Lewes in search of other childcare providers. This would deprive parents of precious study hours, placing them at a huge disadvantage to other students.

The threat of closure is now pressurising parents to consider drastic options, including sending their children away and dropping out of university altogether. “It would be too difficult for me to take my daughter to another place outside campus,” says Hiroko. “If the nursery were to close, I would have to send my daughter back to Japan.”

An undergraduate studying Computing and Artificial Intelligence moved to the UK from Cyprus with her one-year-old son specifically because the University of Sussex marketed itself as being family-friendly, advertised family flats and on-campus childcare facilities.

“I am a single parent and if these facilities are removed midway through my degree I may not be able to complete my studies,” she says. “Now I have to suffer all this uncertainty while trying to complete a very demanding degree – this is not the learning experience I expected!”

As a result, she strongly believes the management has a responsibility to see things through until her and her fellow students’ graduation; “otherwise, they have misled us with their marketing material. If I had known the nursery would be closing I would have chosen a different uni.”

Deterring future parent students

A decision to close the nursery would also deter potential students from coming to Sussex. “If one of the overall goals of the ‘Strategic Plan 2009-2015’ is to attract more international students,” comments Aurora’s mother, “you have to wonder to what extent this goal is compatible with the closure of the nursery, given that having it on campus is a key factor in attracting those students.”

Indeed, a potential student-parent from Taiwan, who was considering applying to Sussex, recently enquired about the nursery. She was told that it is an outstanding facility but because it is at risk of closing, she is understood to be considering opting for an alternative institution.

The proposed closure is also at odds with the university’s aim of “widening participation” and raises questions regarding its stance toward diversity and equal opportunities. Clearly, the presence of the crèche on campus facilitates wider participation for parents, particularly mothers. This means that the nursery’s closure would disproportionately affect women. “Children and student-parents are minority groups within the university community and it seems that they could soon disappear. A university without children and without student-parents is not a diverse university: where is the wider participation in this?” asks Aurora’s mother.

Jo Goodman, the Students’ Union Welfare Officer, states that if the university aims to encourage and support diversity, it must find a way to secure the future of childcare as a vital service to ensure it. As such, the union is currently working with the Student Parent Association (SPA) to ensure that the university remains a supportive space for students and staff with children. “The closure of these facilities would represent a huge loss not only for those who use them, but for the campus community as a whole,” she says. “You only have to talk to a student or staff member whose children are at the nursery to find out how integral it is to their daily life and the removal of childcare would jeopardise many students’ degrees and many staff members’ ability to work at the university. This cannot be allowed to happen.”

What’s next?

So far, the university has disclosed minimal details regarding the steps it is taking to avoid the nursery’s closure. While the statement released on 11 February following Bright Horizon’s withdrawal said it had renewed talks with potential external providers, the details were vague and it remains unclear whether the university is willing to consider alternatives like the “parents model” proposed last year should negotiations fall through.

There is also little available information concerning the reasoning behind the nursery’s closure.  Following a 2009 decision by the university’s governing body asserting that all trading services, including campus childcare facilities, must cover their own costs, it can only be assumed that that the childcare facilities “cost more to run than they bring in”. It is unclear why the nursery is now considered a trading service alongside shops, for instance, and nothing has been said about the appropriateness of this. The general lack of transparency throughout this entire process is another area of concern for students. Another mystery is how the university would use the childcare premises should it proceed with their closure.

“If the reasons to close the nursery are related to the future profitable use of the nursery premises, we – students – have the right to be informed about the kind of use that is being planned for that space and why it is regarded as more valuable than a nursery in campus,” offers Aurora’s mother.

Students are to meet with Charles Dudley, RSTS director, in the near future with the hope of clarifying the situation and gathering more information on steps being taken to avoid closure.

As well as planning more discussions with student-parents, SPA is keen to engage further with other parents, the union, the student and academic communities at large to ensure a clear and transparent account of the issues at stake and the potential scope for action, and to ensure that the university maintains childcare on campus in the future.

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