Widening access to higher education, including provision for "mature" students and courses tailored for people returning to work or education, has brought more applications from women with young families. The expansion of postgraduate studies, particularly of one-year Masters courses, has added to this growth.
While the popular image of the mature student is someone in his or her late thirties or early forties, many mature students (and most postgraduates) are younger. They are more likely to have pre-school children, and are more likely to need some form of child care if they are to complete their degrees successfully.
Institutions are responding to this demand, albeit more slowly than childcare campaigners would wish. Some universities recognise that nurseries are as important as rugby pitches or first-class computing labs in attracting the best students.
They are also vital if they are to recruit and retain staff, so many university crches are being built with both staff and students in mind. Such provision does not come cheap: Nottingham, which is building a 50- place nursery, has committed £380,000 for the capital cost alone.
But there are still universities with no such facilities. In others, provision is barely adequate, with as few as a dozen places for more than 15,000 students.
The National Union of Students is launching a childcare campaign in May, jointly with the AUT, the lecturers' union. For the NUS, child care is primarily a question of access.
"Increasingly, universities are seeking mature students," explains the NUS's childcare officer, Shelley Wright, "but they are not always fulfilling their promises with adequate facilities." Insufficient places, high charges and limited opening hours are all problems encountered by student parents. The best crche in the country is no use if it is out of reach financially, or closes before lectures finish.
"Students need somewhere that's quite flexible," agrees Katherine Harvey, vice-president of Nottingham University students' union. "They cannot book weekly sessions until they know their own timetables."
Nottingham subsidises places at a local nursery. When the campus facility opens, costs will be held down for student parents. Most university nurseries' full charges come to £70 to £90 a week - more than the undergraduate grant. Even with a subsidy, Nottingham expects most students to opt for two or three days' care a week. This also allows the university to help a greater number of students and staff.
Some student unions prefer to run nurseries themselves, ensuring that services match students' needs. At Hull, the union organises the crche and controls its finances, although places are also open to staff. "We subsidise students with children, depending on how much they are getting in grants, at up to 50 per cent of the cost," says Alan Bolchover, the union's secretary and treasurer. "It's very popular. There is a huge waiting list, but we give priority to students at the university." The crche opens between 7.45 am and 6pm, but this might be extended to the evenings, to cater for more flexible courses.
Childcare campaigners also want better provision for women who become pregnant during a course. There have always been unplanned student pregnancies, but university officials often preferred to cover these up. Undergraduates especially were encouraged, if not to drop out altogether, to take a year out.
Returning to college might well depend on grandparents' willingness to care for the child during term time. There are examples where universities have been responsive and helpful, providing crche facilities, and, just as important, to help with suitable accommodation. However, it is often a matter of luck, with students who have stayed on citing a helpful tutor, faculty or department as the most important factor in their success.
This was the case for Sarah Goode, studying for a PhD at Warwick University. She became pregnant, unexpectedly, one month into a Masters course. She was determined to continue with her studies. Her son, Michael, is now almost three.
"The department was very supportive," she says. "I was lucky because the university provided a house, and I already had a car. But there was no childcare until Michael was one. I was breast-feeding during lectures.
"One problem was finding places to study. Others around me had to be very tolerant."
In order to continue she had to take six months off her course, and is studying part-time for her doctorate. "I didn't think about giving up because I was so committed, but I thought I would not be able to cope," she says. "Giving up was not an option, although I thought I might fail."
According to the NUS, student parents face more hardship than any other group at university. But despite the difficulties, Sarah Goode and others like her find it worthwhile.
"I saw myself as a student first and a mother second," she explains. "If I was going to carry on with my life, Michael would have to fit in, as, in the long run, that would mean a better standard of living for both of us."Reuse content