As a twenty year-old undergraduate, I have few real responsibilities. Life is blissfully free of concerns beyond my degree and my attempts at holding back the tide of squalor that is always threatening to actually engulf my house.
The concept of childcare is alien to my day-to-day plans, but for many academics, students, and staff, the scramble for a campus nursery place is one fought over many months, involving waiting lists of incredible length, and fortitude in the face of rejection.
Certainly, when I see kids running down the pathways of campus on Sundays, especially the ones in flashy Fisher-Price cars, I can only give them credit for shrieking, laughing, chasing ducks, and appearing so overwhelmingly happy running about our much-maligned concrete wasteland.
Few students are probably even aware that in order to secure a place for a sixth month old baby at the innocuous looking building behind the health centre, it is advisable to put down your child’s name before they are even born. The care and facilities at the campus nursery are purported to be excellent, hence an oversubscribed service that has led to three times as many applications to places available. For students and staff who are not able to plan in advance, the waiting list is not an option, so they are forced to seek nurseries farther afield.
The current options on the table to resolve this are not workable. If the nursery were to limit its services, as has been suggested, it would become more of a crèche. Technically, it could squeeze in more children, but health and safety guidelines mean that this loss in quality of care may not be allowed on the current site anyway.
Dr Judith Buchanan, a senior lecturer in the English department, placed both of her children in the care of the nursery from the age of six months until they were old enough for school. She told me that “It offered a happy and stimulating environment for them both as babies and pre-schoolers, and we are grateful for the warmth and fun and well-managed structure it gave them in those crucial years”. However, she had applied for places for her children very early on in both pregnancies. Dr Buchanan was able to apply early enough to secure a place, and her children were therefore able to enjoy the benefits of a dedicated learning environment close at hand.
Others are not so lucky, and have to rely on care (though-part subsidised) at other nurseries which may be expensive and further from campus. There is some comfort for parents in knowing that their very young children are just a short walk away, and the value of this security should not be underestimated. Moreover, the campus nursery is a place to meet parents in a similar situation, creating an atmosphere of community.
The solution to the problem of the current demand for childcare is very simple. Half a billion pounds is being spent on Heslington East. We must ensure that the small amount already set aside from this gigantic sum into a nursery results in proper childcare facilities, especially if the student and academic populations rise in line with the number of new departments and courses opening, thereby exacerbating an already overstretched facility.
Some unassigned corner of the vast plot of land could host finger painting sessions and Fisher Price car races for all the smallest members of the community of the University of York. The larger nursery, or even a joint venture with Heslington pre-primary schools would be better equipped to deal with the needs of children without sacrificing the parental comfort of close proximity to them. An added financial bonus would be that the university would not need to hand out childcare subsidies to various other nurseries nearby.
So let the children roam free in the idyll of Heslington East. We must allow them all the resources they need to start school with as much exuberance as they are rolling around on the concrete slabs of Heslington West.