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25 January 2005

Heidelberg Children's House Opens in September

Big demand for day nursery places with flexible opening hours — Work load for women academics extends to evenings and weekends — Private care providers expensive — University wants a Children's House of its own — Also open to non-academics — So far bureaucratic obstacles have delayed plans for a building on the University campus — September start-up now guaranteed

At present almost every second woman academic remains childless. Reconciling a family of one's own with the demands of professional academic activity is extremely difficult. The problem is especially acute for women involved in higher education and research. One of the main setbacks is time management. Younger female academics are expected to be prepared to work in the evenings and on weekends, quite apart from regular attendance at conferences and symposia. This means that "normal" care provider services typically available in the morning only are of no use whatsoever. Care for infants under 3 years confronts the young mothers with all but insuperable problems. "Private day nurseries — always provided that you can get into them — are frequently so expensive that hardly anyone can afford them," explains Prof. Dr. Dominique Lattard, the Women's Affairs Officer of the University of Heidelberg. "Six or seven hundred euros per child per month is by no means rare. Not many people have that kind of money."

The "Heidelberg Children's House" is designed to help out in this respect. The idea behind it is to provide child care with a range of services catering for parents engaging in research and other kinds of work at the University and thus dependent on flexible opening hours. Unlike, say, in the teaching profession, part-time academic work is hardly possible as it is very difficult to reconcile with lab work, team sessions or research sojourns. "But it is not our intention to set up a kindergarten that only members of the University have access to," emphasises Dominique Lattard. "Quite the contrary. The idea is for the Children's House to be available to anyone. It will benefit the city, not just the University."

Planning for the House has been going on for just under two years. The obstacles the project has had to negotiate have aroused considerable attention. "Ever since we started our questionnaire campaign many young families have been keeping a close eye on developments here in Heidelberg and inquire regularly about the state of play," says Lattard. "In early 2003 we instituted a survey that not only had a sensational 50% response but also made it crystal clear that there is a huge demand for day nurseries with flexible opening times." Plans for the project initiated by the Rectorate of the University began back in April 2003. It was only six months before that date that universities had been given the go-ahead from the Ministry of Finance to participate financially in undertakings of this kind.

"The attitude of the University was a major piece of luck for us," says Dominique Lattard. "That meant that there was no finance problem in that quarter. And a site for the Children's House was quickly found. The Student Services has a suitable building on the Neuenheimer Feld campus. At present this building houses the day nursery for students' children and can easily be extended by converting the first floor. It's an ideal location. It has a nice garden and is easy to get to using local transport."

But the first thing to do was to deal with the issues connected with the conversion. "The ground floor was renovated some time ago to serve as a day nursery, so it would have been quite plausible to see the conversion as an extension," says Lattard. "But unfortunately the existing legislation was interpreted very restrictively in terms of the changes required to make the building usable for disabled people. That would have meant installing an expensive lift, which would not only have taken up a lot of room in the building but would also have exploded the budget."

"Luckily, this legislation was amended last October. But the financing problems suddenly cropped up. Foundation funds from the University were available and we were able to drum up some sponsors. But by that time the City of Heidelberg had fulfilled its support quota for institutions of this kind, so that we were excluded from the requirement programme for child care institutions. This meant that we were no longer eligible for the public support funding we needed," says Dominique Lattard. This new delay was not to be the last.

Premature optimism

"Last summer we were told that the support quota was to be extended and that our project would definitely be included in the requirement programme. So we felt sure the project would be getting under way in the foreseeable future. But our optimism was premature. The City has decided to reorganise its requirement programme, now gearing it to providing priority care places for children whose parents are looking for a training or job vacancy. With February 2005 in the offing, all we can do is to ask the many parents who have inquired about places to bide their time a little longer. Even now we have over 30 applications for the 20 places we plan to provide." But this uncertainty will soon be over. The project that has existed on paper so far is to become reality in the near future. The Rector of the University, Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff, has decided to do without support from the municipal authorities so that the scheduled opening in September can take place.

From now till autumn numerous young families will have to tide things over with a (usually pretty complicated) network of friends, neighbours, relatives and babysitters. Such a network is anything but easy to organise and takes up a lot of time and energy. Also, it is a well-known fact that constantly changing reference persons are anything but beneficial for young children. Accordingly many young female academics have reluctantly decided to stay at home and look after their children themselves. In real terms, what this boils down to is a temporary remission of professional activity. Notably in the sciences, the headlong progress of research means that it is easy to lose touch with the latest developments in a matter of months. So in many ways the swift completion of the Children's House project is a major benefit for all concerned.

Opening on 1 September

The decision taken by the University means that the planned opening date — 1 September — has become a workable proposition. Even without the installation of a lift there are still a whole range of conversions necessary in the campus building. They not only cost money, they also take time. The Women's Affairs Officer knows by experience that the child care situation plays a major role in applicants' decisions to accept an appointment at the University. "If we had to wait for inclusion in the City's requirement programme," she emphasises, "the delay might cost us a great deal more. It could be highly detrimental for the reputation of Heidelberg as a university city. In such cities family-friendliness is a genuine location factor."

According to Dominique Lattard one thing is certain: "This one project, however laudable it is, cannot solve all the problems at once. But it can be seen as a visible token that Heidelberg as a university city is doing its best to create better conditions for families with children. As things stand, Heidelberg is the city with the lowest birth rate anywhere in Germany. And it's high time we changed that."
Heiko P. Wacker

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Dominique Lattard
Women's Affairs Officer of the University of Heidelberg
Hauptstr. 126
D-69117 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/547697, fax: 547271
a65@urz.uni-heidelberg.de
http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/organe/frb

Inquiries from journalists can also be addressed to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317
michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/presse/index.html


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