This article is more than 2 years old

Bringing parents back into the fees conversation

The voice of parents has been neglected. Caroline Chipperfield and Nick von Behr outline how to engage parents and guardians in student finance.
This article is more than 2 years old

Caroline Chipperfield works for the University Partnership Programme (UPP)

Nick von Behr has worked in tertiary education policy for the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, BSI Group and the Institution of Structural Engineers.

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 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.

4 responses to “Bringing parents back into the fees conversation

  1. As parents we feel fully aware of the expectation that we’ll make up the shortfall between the maximum possible loan and what our eldest will actually be allowed to get (because of our household income). Awareness isn’t the problem, actually having that money is. It’s not like we eat out or frequent pubs or cinemas or have ever gone on a Mediterranean holiday or anything – mostly we shop at Lidl – we just don’t have the money spare: even on a decent salary it’s a real challenge to look after a family. So, in our case, more information isn’t the issue, it’s the expectation. It reminds me of all this hand-wringing about encouraging people to put more aside into their pensions for their retirement. Again, I don’t need such encouragement: I would, if I had it! The lower level of loan barely covers student accommodation but luckily our eldest might just do well enough to go to a university in the city I work in so, although they’ll miss out on a bunch of student experience, at least they’ll be able to go at all. (We do have a car, a little old Peugeot 107 I inherited, but then my other child’s at high school in a different city and our village doesn’t get many buses so the car’s not exactly a luxury.)

  2. Thanks. Many comments like yours on Martin Lewis’s website. Ultimately it is a parental decision on how much you decide I financially support your legal adult children through uni. There will be different views and abilities to do this. So more information helps surely?

  3. Why does more information help with an ability to decide whether to support or not? It doesn’t ; it doesn’t help my income increase.. it doesn’t help my children with mobility.. it doesn’t help in any way. Asking the question only supports the ethos and agenda that removes a right to education with a broken loan system that does not come anyway close to covering basic living costs. Rhetoric matters. Stop putting fees at the feet of parents when it belongs in the hands of the ministers responsible for setting substandard maintenance loan levels.

  4. I sympathise with your point of view but the reality is that HE now costs whether we like it or not. The issue is how that cost can be shared to get the best out of the system imho.

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