Nappy Valley and gender equality in academia?

 Towards the end of last year, the University of St Andrews announced its plan to open a nursery in the early part of 2017. The new build, which has been devised for the main purpose of allowing more academics – staff and postgraduates, mainly – the availability of childcare so that their work and studies in the University will not be hindered, will be opening within the coming months. It will be a useful asset for parents within the University who currently have to use other services, some of which are outside of St Andrews.
Being a rather naïve student, I didn’t really consider that the University might need to have childcare services. This changed on moving-in day at DRA last year, which I remember vividly; not because of the anxiety and nervousness that I felt about properly moving away from home for the first time, but because during the process of finding my flat – which, if you’ve ever been to DRA is a daunting prospect in itself – I stumbled passed a nursery. I couldn’t tell if I was hallucinating due to my nerves, or whether this was just standard Scottish town planning, but I was immediately taken aback by its existence in amongst the maze of University residences. I thought to myself “why would anyone put a nursery there?” However, it didn’t take me too long to figure out why.
When you think about it, it’s actually an extremely clever idea for a number of reasons. In terms of safety, university buildings are amongst the best places in the country. One
might think that placing children in such close proximity to student life might be a danger, but the nursery only opens during weekdays – when students are either at lectures or, more likely, asleep – so the chances of them posing a risk to the children are virtually non-existent.
As one might expect, the University already has measures in place to provide academics with access to childcare so that jobs and studies can be continued.
For instance, it provides discounted rates for its members at two nurseries, although neither of these are located in St Andrews, which does pose as a problem for many parents in the University.
In terms of pragmatics alone, therefore, the new nursery on University grounds does seem like an ideal solution. However, perhaps it addresses other issues at hand here: namely, an approach to tackle the disproportionate number of women and men in senior levels of academia. St Andrews does have more equal numbers of men and women in such roles
than the other universities, although across the country, women hold only 20 per cent of professorships (according to The Guardian). Part of the reason behind this is that sufficient
childcare is not available, resulting in women, who are traditionally seen as child-carers, often being forced to stay at home to look after their family.
Given everything that is being done in the drive for gender equality in society at the moment, such as the Women’s March, this new construction seems quite ordinary.
Yet, it could turn out to be a great act of progress; it could subsequently allow more women to rise higher in the hierarchy of academia, therefore taking a real step towards achieving gender equality within higher education. On a more practical level, however, it would simply be a useful asset for parents to have their children being looked after so close to where they work. In addition to this, the nursery might actually be a way of more effectively integrating non-students with the St Andrews community. According to the 2012 census, the population of St Andrews was 16,800, in which the age bracket of 16- 29 occupied a hefty proportion of 37 per cent.
Whilst this figure is excellent for student freedom, independence, and study, it may be the case that it has created a division between the town and the university, one which is perhaps prototypical of university towns.
The University’s relationship with town residents has at times, been fractious, at best. For instance, the tradition of Raisin Weekend, whilst once being an event which was welcomed by many residents has, in recent years, become something of an annoyance, signified largely by the increased police presence during the event. In terms of breaking down age group barriers, maybe the presence of younger children as provided by the nursery would be a refreshing dose of reality for community cohesion, and a way of creating a St Andrews community, rather than just the University of St Andrews community.
All in all, the opening of the new building seems like a genuinely good idea. For one thing, the nursery will perhaps be a great project for St Andrews as a whole; indeed, positives such as getting more women into higher levels of academia and creating better relations with town residents are important things which we can all look forward to.
Little children may not be everyone’s cup of tea – certainly, not everyone is getting broody just yet, and the last thing any hungover student wants on a Thursday morning is to be woken up by the screams of energetic toddlers – but it seems a fair assessment that the pros certainly outweigh the cons.
The University isn’t about to become the childcare capital of east Fife, but rather it is showing an outward-looking and positive strategy to address an issue which affects many of its employees and students.
While the nursery might take some getting used to, in the grand scheme of things it seems like something which is to be warmly welcomed.


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