Children Matter: Equity and childcare on campus

February 10, 2010


Susan Prentice, University of Manitoba
Guest Contributor

Photo courtesy myfear on Flickr.

Childcare politics are again a hot issue on Canadian campuses. In late November, a coalition of faculty, students and staff dissuaded the University of Victoria Board of Governors from signing a contract with the commercial childcare chain Kids and Company, although it is on other campuses. In northern Manitoba, at the University College of the North, the administration is proceeding to build two state of the art childcare centres at the Thompson and the Pas sites. In September, Ryerson University held a conference on the role of early childhood education and care services as ‘lab schools.’ Over May 21 and 22, 2010 a national student’s organization will host 'It Takes a University: Childcare and Postsecondary Education' in Vancouver.

This kind of interest and activity is long-overdue. It has been 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommended a national daycare system, and 25 years since Rosalie Abella’s Royal Commission on Equality in Employment proclaimed “child care is the ramp that provides equal access to the workforce for mothers.”

Post-secondary educational institutions have strong reasons to see early learning and care as essential campus services. One place to begin is with students. Today, about one in ten post-secondary students is a parent, who must juggle school and family caregiving (Lero, Smit Quosai, & Van Rhijn, 2007). The challenge is even more difficult for Aboriginal learners; almost one-third of Aboriginal university students have children, as do almost half of Aboriginal college students. A recent parliamentary committee report on Aboriginal students finds “family duties and financial insecurity” are the two most powerful deterrents of their success. Thus, if universities and colleges want to accommodate student parents and become more welcoming to Aboriginal students, their campus childcare programs are as important as their libraries for learners.

Childcare is irreducibly connected to gender equality. 

The research case is conclusive – it is mothers, more than fathers, whose educational and employment options are shaped through family caregiving responsibilities. Women who are mothers at campuses where childcare services are scarce, too expensive, of low quality or otherwise not accessible will find it hard to complete their education.

The gender equity connection embraces women as faculty as staff as well. Female faculty face systemic barriers. For faculty who are mothers, the barriers are compounded. American research has recently reported that women disproportionately ‘stall out’ at Associate Professor levels, and that having children is a professorial liability (Mason & Goulden, 2004). Critics of systemic discrimination have long noted that the family clock and the tenure clock conflict, and that this clash regularly disadvantages women (Hoschild, 1975). Across Canada, faculty unions have been remarkably disinterested in childcare as a bargaining issue, and family-friendly issues are a low priority (Acker & Armenti, 2004). Few collective agreements include access to childcare services, or support with the high cost of early learning and care services.

Childcare is a site of worry, as well. Some administrations have introduced commercial childcare programs on their campuses. At the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, the rapidly-expanding chain Kids and Company now provides market services. While the University of Victoria successfully opposed entrepreneurial chain childcare, the market niche remains a tempting vacuum.

On post-secondary education campuses, childcare programs can and should play a key role. They are essential supports for students, staff and faculty – helping ease some of the work/school/family strain. They can provide rich resources to the academic learning and research mandates. Their presence would be a marker of real commitment to gender equity on campus. Where services are directly operated or owned, they provide a bulwark against further privatization and corporatized intrusions into higher education. The only question is – why is progress so slow?

Susan Prentice is  professor of Sociology at the University of Manitoba.


Acker, S., & Armenti, C. (2004). Sleepless in Academia. Gender and Education, 16(1), 3 - 24.

Hoschild, A. (1975). Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers. In F. Howe (Ed.), Women and the Power to Change (Carnegie Commission on Higher Education Series). New York: McGraw Hill Books.

Lero, D., Smit Quosai, T., & Van Rhijn, T. (2007). Access To Post-Secondary Education For Student Parents: Final Report. Ottawa: Human Resources and Social Development Canada.

Mason, M. A., & Goulden, M. (2004). Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Life-long Careers of Academic Women. Berkeley: University of California.

"UVic mulls 'big box' childcare -- Large for-profit company would clear long waiting list for care" -- By Judith Lavoie, Times Colonist November 11, 2009. Available online.

Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC