The Augar review notes there has always been an expectation on parents to make a financial contribution to student maintenance costs, although this hasn’t always been made transparent to potential students or parents. In this context, we define parents as the significant adults who have legal and emotional responsibility for the children in their household.
This finding informs a report recommendation (7.2) that the parental contribution element of the maintenance payment should be more explicitly stated in government and university communication and documents.
Of course, it is obvious that there should be more transparency and communication about student finances and a better understanding of “who pays” but should it be an expectation that parents of (legal) adults contribute to their children’s costs? This seems at odds with a society that presents 18 year olds as independent adults – with all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. In the media, there is a strong narrative of “helicopter parenting” of parents unable to let go of their children at 18 and who are extending their teenage years into their twenties. It seems the state is reinforcing that view and making it difficult for young adults to be independent if still considered to be the financial responsibility of their parents.
Who are the beneficiaries?
Surely we should be working towards a system looking at the beneficiaries of a higher education and decide on the share of the investment in developing a student’s skills in relation to the benefit. In which case, society, the individual and business would share both the burden and benefit. A parent, however, is not a direct beneficiary and would be contributing to support through the usual taxation systems. Throughout the discussion on the funding of further and higher education, parents appear to be the neglected voice, with expectations that are not always clear and scarce information targeted for parents to aid their understanding and support in the decision-making of the potential student.
Need for transparent information
The expansion in post-18 education means many students are the first in their family to extend their education into adulthood and many parents are facing unfamiliar territory when helping their children to make decisions on the right type of provision (apprenticeships, technical and vocational qualifications, as well as university courses), subject and institution.
The Augar review panel included six eminent members. One of these is Baroness Alison Wolf, an academic at King’s College London and a crossbench member of the House of Lords. Wolf chaired another education review which published a report in 2011 looking at vocational education in England for 14-19 year olds. One of the main recommendations from this report was to encourage training providers to provide transparent information to inform student choice of course and institution. And from the Augar review this could easily extend into the importance of providing information (alongside financial) on supporting student choice in tertiary education.
A strong advocate for information and transparency for both students and parents is Martin Lewis, Founder and Chair of MoneySavingExpert.com. His work on repositioning the student loan as a student contribution, “ready reckoner” for parents and encouraging the Augar review to be “overt” about the parental contribution for students under 25s is a step in the right direction.
The role of parents
Ultimately, most students and their parents want to be happy, find employment they enjoy and be paid at a level which they can live on, whatever that may mean to families. The added complexity for many parents is that they may be planning different strategies for different children based on their aspirations, skills and interests. It may also be that the information available is not directed at parents or be easy to access from a parental perspective. Sometimes it may feel that there is too much focus on rankings, numbers, statistics and a huge range of metrics – much that doesn’t actually help parents in supporting the student decision making.
Parents, whether graduates or not, value good quality information. Information that will help the new generations make the “right” decision for them. This should also align with their wishes for the ideal type of community and society they want for themselves and their children and grandchildren to live in. Politics of course complicates this all fivefold!
One idea may be a combined UK careers strategy for all post-16 year olds that satisfies the needs of students, trainees, parents, workers, employers and focuses on providing information that enables students (supported by their parents) to feel informed and make their best decisions.
If Augar can make a difference in supporting parents’ access to high quality and purposeful information (as well as promoting the financial expectation) it would be a major single achievement of the review. Funding will always be a tricky one for parents and politicians alike but getting the right information out to all stakeholders is a step in the right direction.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr Seuss, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut”. Random House. 1978.