In the recent budget, the Westminster government announced major reforms to childcare in England.
They plan to expand free childcare, which is currently available for three- and four-year-olds, to all eligible children under five.
Whilst I welcome this support for young families, I am frustrated that parents like me who are training in higher education will be left in the lurch.
There are no plans to make the scheme available to parents in full time education and PhD stipend rules can make it challenging to access support even if you are doing paid work.
The UK has some of the highest childcare costs in the world and this is a barrier to higher education for parents.
Why do parents who study need financial support?
Childcare in the UK is expensive, especially for parents living on student loans or PhD stipends. The charity Coram surveyed local authorities in Britain and estimated that the average cost of sending an under-two-year-old to nursery full-time (50 hours/week) across Great Britain is a whopping £14,030 per annum.
It is not feasible for parents who study to rely on student loans or stipends to cover childcare and living expenses. For example, my PhD stipend is roughly equal to the cost of my son’s childcare. This is normal for parents doing funded PhDs.
The typical stipend (£15,000-£18,000) is only slightly more than the average cost of full-time nursery. The situation is even worse for parents doing undergraduate courses. Maintenance loans (£8,400-£11,427) are lower than average nursery fees.
What is the free hours policy?
Currently, all three- and four-year-olds can access 15 hours free childcare per week. Eligible working parents of three- and four-year-olds can utilise 30 hours of free childcare a week. The government plan to expand this scheme incrementally as follows:
- From April 2024, two-year olds who are eligible will get 15 hours of free childcare.
- From September 2024, eligible children who are between 9 months and 5 years old will access 15 hours.
- From September 2025, eligible children between 9 months and 5 years will access 30 hours.
At the moment, to qualify for support, parents each need to earn at least £152 a week on average. This is the equivalent of 16 hours of work a week at the national living wage.
In his budget announcement, the Chancellor explained that the expanded scheme will also only be available to those who work at least 16 hours a week at minimum wage. This means that parents who are studying full-time do not qualify for the current scheme or the expanded scheme.
To access free childcare hours, parents will need to juggle the demands of studying with work. This could force parents to delay completing their education and training. For example, if I want to access the scheme, I will need to reduce the time I spend on my PhD and be employed for at least 16 hours a week. This would be challenging to manage with the demands of parenting. It would also force me to delay my PhD completion date and my plans to work in academia where I would earn a higher wage. It feels like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either I spend my entire PhD stipend on childcare, or I slam the brakes on my career.
Even where post-graduate researchers are doing paid work, PhD stipend rules can be a barrier to accessing financial help. For example, my ESRC funded studentship does not allow me to hold either a full-time job, permanent part-time job, or temporary role for an extended period. These limitations mean that it’s difficult to regularly do 16 hours of paid employment per week. For example, whilst I have picked up some teaching and research assistant work, these roles are generally short-term and precarious.
What about other forms of financial support with childcare?
As well as missing out on the free hours scheme, parents in higher education do not benefit from other forms of financial support with childcare. Tax-free childcare is not available to us if we are in full-time education. Studying parents need to be employed for 16 hours a week on average at minimum wage to access tax-free childcare. This brings up the same problems as those faced by parents trying to access to the free hours scheme.
Some parents who are studying full-time will qualify for a childcare grant, but strict eligibility criteria means that others will miss out. The grant covers 85 per cent of childcare costs so long as this is less than £183.75 per week for one child. To qualify for support parents must have a household income of less than £19,549.80. For parents in HE who miss out on this, however narrowly, there is no other targeted financial support with childcare.
Making HE less equitable
The cost of childcare undermines ambitions to make access to higher education more equitable. The Office for Students identifies mature students as an underrepresented group in HE. Childcare expenses could be putting off parents in this group from applying to study and train. Fees for childcare could also make parents feel pressured to leave higher education. For example, on some days, I feel like leaving my PhD is the sensible option. Other parents have also highlighted how financially unfeasible it is for them to complete courses like midwifery which require students to do lengthy placements without pay.
Childcare support for parents who study is also a matter of public importance. Public services like the NHS are facing a staffing crisis. In September 2022, NHS vacancy statistics found that medical and nursing vacancies had a vacancy rate of 9.7%. Parents quitting training because of unaffordable childcare will make the problem worse. Furthermore, barriers to parents completing HE could hold back economic growth. In 2019, the Department for Education estimated that university graduates earn £10,000 more per year than non-graduates on average. If parents cannot complete higher education, it could stifle their future earnings and their spending power.
Who should be addressing the issue?
The government, higher education providers and research councils all have a role to play in better supporting parents who study.
Most obviously, the government could and should expand the free hours scheme to those in education or make the scheme universal. Either of these options would support parents to train and study. Making the scheme universal could also help young people from the poorest backgrounds to have as much access to early years education as their more affluent peers.
Universities should advocate for their students to have access to the free hours scheme and other governmental support with childcare. They should also ensure enough discounted childcare places at university nurseries are available for the children of students.
Research councils should also be advocating for parents who study to access governmental support with childcare. In the meantime, they should support their funded postgraduate students with childcare costs. Some research councils provide maternity pay for PhD students to help mothers complete PhD programmes. For example, I have been well-supported by the ESRC who provide maternity pay for the PhD students they fund. Financial support like this should be expanded to help parents cover childcare costs and complete their studies.
The proposed reforms to childcare in England are positive, but let’s make sure parents in higher education don’t miss out.