This article was originally published in Vue Weekly on January 5, 2011
By Jenn Prosser
For some, post-secondary education is solely a place of learning, where classes take place—a means to an end. For others it is a flexible, multi-faceted space, filling the needs of a homebase, a workplace or a social setting. In an ideal world, a post-secondary learning environment would bring together the best of all worlds and on-campus childcare is one step toward achieving this aim. Childcare is not a required feature in workplaces, but it adds to the appeal of an organization. Recently the debate over the provision of childcare at post-secondary institutions has sparked a discussion of an institution's image, a faculty member's choice of institution and a parent's ability to not have to choose between higher education and being a formative person in their child's life.
Shannon Digweed was a single mother throughout her undergraduate career at the University of Alberta. "We started in a daycare off campus—that was harder. It was all about timing really. Sometimes you had to leave early, and because the day care was open at eight, you couldn't enroll in earlier classes." In her second year, she discovered the on-campus daycare located in the HUB building. This opportunity changed her undergraduate experience.
"It was great, I'd take her in the morning, and you could always take them in quite early so you never were late for your 8 am lab or class, and they were open fairly late. It gave you the opportunity, so when you're studying you could go in at lunch and visit with them, or during breaks in your class schedule during that day."
There are currently five childcare centres on the University of Alberta campus, and each caters to a different demographic. They range in price depending on age and need, averaging around $1000 monthly. These centres are not university operated, but are "University affiliated daycare programs." Their collective mission is to be "family oriented child care centres which develop trust and respond to the needs of the child as well as the family."
Currently, each U of A daycare has a minimum one to two year wait list, and to be put on the wait list there is a mandatory deposit, ranging from $50 to $500. The long wait times haven't changed from when Digweed moved to attend the U of C in Calgary. "There is so much demand for it. I was on the waitlist for my entire Master's degree. So many people wanted to take advantage of it, there was never any room."
Digweed does recognize that there have been and continue to be daycares and dayhomes located off campus, and like many students, staff and faculty, her children were enrolled in those off-campus places but, "Good daycares and dayhomes are limited in numbers. I think that people seem to perceive that there are a lot of opportunities for daycare but I don't think it's as easy as most people think. Even when Kennedy was young, and I was looking for a daycare it was not easy. You had to go in there and spend time in each place you go to. Looking, and making sure they're accredited, how many staff per child, what is their history, and a lot of them are always at capacity."
Outside of the U of A, most every major PSE institution has a daycare centre on-campus. Besides being an asset in attracting high-quality instructors and researchers, it also improves the image of an institution. In a place where space is valuable in every way it can be, an institution choosing to invest capital in childcare speaks to a higher value, and ideal of a community, not just a campus.
The conversation about daycare continues for student governments at each PSE institution in Alberta. Duncan Wojtaszek, Executive Director of the Council of Alberta University Students, is involved with the struggle "to have access to it and it be a vital part of the campus community, not just for some members of the campus." From Wojtaszek's perspective, it is not that the university doesn't care about opening space for students, it is that they recognize that the daycare is a vital public service to recruit new faculty. This is universal to campuses across the country. Melanee Thomas, a burgeoning Canadian academic, understands the impact childcare centres have on campus environments. "University campuses are designed to be community outreach centres in a lot of ways, and there is more than one way to learn. It was extremely positive, and something that I would look for in any campus I would consider taking a tenure track position in."
Digweed now teaches at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, and despite her new position in the post-secondary strata, she is well aware of the MacEwan on-campus day care. Run by the Early Learning and Child Care program at MacEwan, it provides a win-win for the university. ELCC students get hands-on experience while faculty and staff take advantage of on-campus childcare. Although it is no longer an issue for Shannon, she does understand the impact it would have on faculty members.
"A lot of people in our department have young children," and because the institution has shown that day care is a priority, "it makes it look like they care," says Digweed. Simply put, childcare centres reflect the environment an institution fosters, good or bad.The number one issue brought up time and time again is that daycares do not make any money. In an economy driven by market principles of profit, it is less than popular to start a venture where there is no guarantee of capital gain. The U of A on-campus daycares charge an average of $900 monthly for a child between 19 months and five years. The Government of Alberta offers a maximum subsidy of $546 per month per child for the same age range. This leaves the parent to pay just under $400 on average monthly for childcare. That is some students' monthly rent in shared accommodation.
While on-campus childcare opens doors for many students who otherwise wouldn't be able to successfully complete post-secondary learning, without the subsidy offered by the provincial government, daycare cost would present a large, and for many insurmountable barrier to attaining a post-secondary education. The subsidy is critical to being able to afford childcare for many, students and non-students alike. From Digweed's perspective, "It makes the difference between being able to have your kids in a good daycare versus having a place where you don't really know what is going on looking after them.
"Today, public institutions, like MacEwan, are coming up with creative solutions. While students take advantage of hands on training, the institution benefits from having a high quality childcare program to offer new faculty and staff, and the children enrolled are reaping the rewards of progress in early childhood education practices. The University of Lethbridge, and Mount Royal University have opened up daycare centres on-campus. For the U of L, this was the result of a long battle. Many years were spent by a loose organization of students, graduate students and professors who came together to tell the university very clearly how important this prioritization of space is. It signified a new attitude by administration, recognizing the important role an on-campus daycare plays in its community. At the end of the day, for any institution it will be a matter of need demonstrated and the desire to foster a true campus community.
Wojtaszek's experience with post-secondary education means that he understands the conversations that occur when finances are tough; he notes that "there is always a temptation to look at other ways to outsource daycare, to take it out of the campus community and to privatize it."
But Wojtaszek believes that, "the campus daycare can be an important part of the campus community to emphasize to both students and staff that the campus is their home, the campus is their primary community. Not just where they learn, not just where they work, but also a place where they live and where their family is welcome."