Family capital, retention and student wellbeing

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At one time, going away to university was the ultimate step towards independence. Students waved their parents away on the first day of term expecting little contact before Christmas, save for the odd phone call or letter. There was never a parent in sight at open days.

Now, of course, things are different. Having gone through a period in which ‘helicopter parenting’ was much problematised, parental involvement in student life is today fairly well accepted as a social change: in fact so much so that a lack of parental involvement now seems unusual and problematic.

Before we Gen X types are tempted to wave this away with tales of our own rampant independence, we should stop and think. Being a student today is very different indeed; moreover today’s students have grown up in a radically different world. Communications are easier, but the social world is far more complex. The declining mental health of young people is well documented. And university is now for the masses rather than the elite, but the financial stakes – and consequently the emotional stakes – are much higher.

Given this context, parental involvement in student life is less surprising, and it was demonstrated very clearly in the Unite Students Insight Report survey of over 6,500 students. We found evidence that students rely heavily on their parents for emotional, financial and even career support throughout their time at university.

Emotional support was the strongest factor: almost nine out of ten students felt that they could turn to their family following a setback, nearly half have actually done so, and this remained stable over the years at university.

Students are also turning to their parents for ongoing advice on money management or financial worries, with three quarters saying they would go to their parents for this, compared to the quarter who would go to their university student services.

And 44% have gone to their parents for advice on choosing a career, making it a more significant influence than university careers services which came in at 29%. Results were similar when it came to advice on applying for jobs.

This level of parental support may be unsurprising for the reasons noted earlier, but I believe is often overlooked in widening participation and inclusion policy. Although parental financial means have always been baked into student finance assessments, policy hasn’t kept pace with the more subtle and ongoing support that parents can provide. For example our data reveals that students from working class backgrounds are far less likely to access parental support when it comes to career advice, but no more likely to seek it from other sources.

Some of this is touched on by the concept of social capital, but this doesn’t entirely cover it because it is entirely possible to grow up in a professional middle class family and yet have no support from parents while at university. My work with the Unite Foundation, which provides scholarships for care leavers and estranged students, has brought home the insidious and pervasive disadvantage of being a student without parental support, and how this can cut right across traditional social class boundaries.

This is where the new concept of family capital, proposed by Becca Bland, CEO of Stand Alone, becomes useful because it identifies and names this often hidden form of disadvantage at its root.

Earlier this year Stand Alone and the Unite Foundation were successful in ensuring students estranged from their parents were recognised as a target group in access agreements, through the publication of an OFFA Topic Briefing. On 19 October Stand Alone launched a pledge scheme for universities, which commits them to developing the service they offer to estranged students.

Later this year, using data from the Unite Students Insight Report 2016, the Unite Foundation will publish a study of the student experiences of care leavers and estranged students.

While we still may raise an eyebrow at over-involved parents during the coming round of open days, perhaps we can also stop and think about the impact of absent parents, and the systematic disadvantage this brings.

The Unite Students Insight Report was published on 31 August 2016. This article is part of a series inspired by the report and the wider dataset.

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