A number of nurseries operated by universities and colleges across the UK are under threat or due to close, as they claim too few students are taking up places.
Anglia Ruskin, which has campuses in Cambridge and Chelmsford, Essex, and Ayrshire College in Scotland have both confirmed that they are to close their nurseries next year.
A lack of demand for places and unaffordable running costs are cited by Anglia Ruskin as the reasons for closing its ‘subsidised’ Cambridge nursery.
The university has also said that it wants to replace the nursery with a student lounge.
But parent campaigners say there is a shortage of nursery places in Cambridge, and more than 1,500 people signed a petition to keep it open within 48 hours of it being posted online.
Ben Cijffers of the Save ARU Nursery campaign told Nursery World he had contacted more than ten nurseries to try to find a place for his child since the closure was announced.
‘There is a critical, acute and chronic shortage of nursery places in the city,’ he said.
The university maintains that the nursery was never intended to be a community resource, but Mr Cijffers said he has evidence that it was originally set up 30 years ago to provide community childcare, as well as for students.
He also said that the university had not provided a business case for closing the nursery.
‘To destroy it for a student lounge is taking a resource away from students, staff and the community and places a strain on other nurseries,’ he added.
‘Anglia Ruskin has not consulted its staff, students or community on this, and we have significant concerns regarding the Equality Impact Assessment undertaken by the university.’
A spokesperson for the university said, ‘Due to low demand from our students, we have had to take the difficult decision to close our subsidised nursery. Despite promoting the setting extensively, only 13 students are using it. We subsidise each nursery place by more than £5,600, which means we are spending more than £128,000 subsidising parents in the local community each year.’
Campaigners dispute these figures. Twenty-three of the 41 families registered with the nursery are using community places and paying the full market rate, Mr Cijffers said.
The spokesperson added, ‘The nursery was never established as a community facility. It is simply that falling demand from our student body has meant that places have been made available to our staff and to parents in the local community.’
Meanwhile, the student union says it has managed to push back the closure date from June to August 2016. The university has also agreed to create ‘a more holistic package’ for students, although details have not yet been confirmed.
Sammi Whitaker, president of the union, said, ‘It is deeply regrettable that the university has decided to go ahead with the closure of the nursery, however we are pleased that with the weight of the student body behind us, we have managed to secure a number of positive mitigations to provide support for current and future students with parental responsibilities.’
Ayrshire College has also taken the decision to close its two nurseries, which it says are no longer financially viable.
According to the college, the setting based on its Kilwinning campus is operating at just 23 per cent capacity, and the Ayr campus nursery at 70 per cent.
The Kilwinning campus nursery is expected to close in January and the Ayr campus nursery next summer.
Ayrshire College vice-principal Jackie Galbraith acknowledged that closure would be disappointing for staff and students.
Nursery World reported last month (online, 13 November) that the London School of Economics is carrying out an ongoing review into its nursery provision, which it says is ‘under-used’ and running at a loss. Currently just 20 children attend the 63-place setting that is run from a basement within a university building.
While the LSE claims it has no intention of closing its nursery, the university’s student union has concerns about its future – the lease on the building in which it is based runs out in 2020.
A campaign by the student union calls for the university to reinvest in the nursery, as it believes this would increase the take-up of places.
The University of Bradford is also looking at ways to address the low take-up of places among students at its nursery.
The university claims that over the past few years, fewer students and staff have been using the nursery. Proposals include making changes to fees, and the joint marketing of the setting.
A spokesperson for the University of Bradford said, ‘We have had very good discussions with parents and staff about the review of the nursery. Those discussions have produced some positive proposals aimed at addressing concerns about the low uptake of the provision by members of the university, and the financial position of the nursery.
‘We believe the proposals are promising enough to work together on, and so we are deferring any decision on the nursery’s future for 12 months until we have had a chance to test out some of the ideas.’
Commenting on the developments, the union Unison said it had noticed a marked trend in closures across universities and colleges.
Ben Thomas, national officer for education and children’s services at Unison, told Nursery World, ‘This has been partly caused by the drop in mature students due to the Government’s fees regime and partly by general cost-cutting by universities and colleges.
‘We are very concerned at the cuts and think it is short-sighted and damaging to the students and children. Quality nursery provision is vital in allowing many students the ability to study and improve their qualifications.
‘We would like to see universities and colleges look at options other than closure to keep nurseries open, such as opening up places beyond just the children of staff and students.’