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Parents are at the sharp end of marketisation

Shouldn't we start by assuming that parents will be involved in their child's higher education? Alan Sutherland on the "sell" to mum and dad
This article is more than 4 years old

Alan Sutherland is CEO at Surrey SU

The 2019 UCAS application cycle is almost complete, and at the time of writing almost half a million undergraduates will be starting at a UK university in a few weeks time.

What part, however, are parents allowed and expected to play in the next few years? After a harrowing experience with a gaggle of angry parents, I thought it wise to take a closer look at the parental experience.

I am not talking about student parents – this is about the parents or guardians of those going to university this forthcoming semester. What I discovered after a closer look, is that this is probably the sharpest end of what the BBC would term the “so-called” marketisation of HE.

First mover disadvantage

Just a couple of years ago it was reported that half of the UG intake is the first in the household to attend university. This means that unless the family has a neighbourly connection to rely on, there is no point of reference for what to expect when their child enters university. The only information for parents comes from the sales department, and can roughly be summarised (with one standout exception) thus:


A glance at university marketing from across the sector and even UCAS all pretty much say the same thing:

  1. We understand going to University is a big decision
  2. Here is a massive list of student support services that will take over from you, when your kid leaves home.
  3. Choose us.

The theme around these pages are all about success – like an educational version of the fitness before and after videos all over Instagram.

I used to be so overweight/unhealthy before I enrolled at the University of Fibchester”.

The University of Bristol will have had unique motivations for reviewing their advice for parents, but helpfully they have produced a video guide from the VC – which is (as far as I can see) the only parents guide which is explicit about the standards required to be a Bristol Student; and the expectations on you to succeed. It’s not an example that’s common.


What price failure?

What the “hard sell” to parents doesn’t explain is that if your child does not study, or if they harass other students on campus, or don’t bother turning up – we’ll kick them out (as they should).

Depressing” figures from 2018 estimate that 26,000 students starting will never advance past their first year. The failures continue the further through the course, but first year will normally see the highest attrition rate.

Almost a quarter of a billion pounds will have to be repaid from failed first years. These students who do not pass first year will have amassed over £240m of debt and not even gained a Certificate of Higher Education. Not only that, but the government loan system will have expected the parents to stump up for living costs regardless of whether or not they can afford it

This disconnect between the marketing spiel and the harsh reality of studying manifests itself in the angry or perplexed parent when (as a university would say) “things don’t go right”. It is often the SU advice staff who are the final stop on the appeal tour for a failed student, and will have to explain in blunt terms to confused parents that this the end of the line because 105 credits is not enough to proceed to second year.

When I have had to do this myself I have often asked why the student came to study here – “because of the reputation”, but unfortunately for some, this means that the standard set does not equal the standard achieved. For them the student experience is over.

You’re out

It is even worse for the expelled student. University standards can be brutal to the uninitiated. Coming from a relaxed sixth form, many courses take a very laid back approach to whether or not you attend lectures – you are an adult learner now, but there is only one second chance. If you find yourself on the sharp end of a disciplinary panel, there is often no second chance.

The student will often see this slow motion car crash approaching, and know what is about to happen. But consider the parents. The last they heard, their child was going to “The University of Success” with “world class student support” and “outstanding facilities” along with amazing scores in the TEF, REF, and GEOFF. How could it be possible that their son or daughter is no longer a student?

It’s also the case that students very rarely open up about their impending failure or disciplinary panel. After a huge emotional and financial investment when you are the first in your family to go to university – it’s clear that it’s not easy to open up about this.

I need answers

All of which means that it’s time to re-asses the role of the parent in the university student experience. It’s just not fair to say “your child is an adult so we are not going to tell you anything” – and at the same time have a finance system which entirely relies on parental contribution.

We can’t have the hard sell to parents, and then expect them to relinquish all care at the start of freshers week. GDPR does not prevent a university sharing student information with a parent, it just prevents us from doing so without permission. It is quite possible to create a parental portal to see marks and HEAR data so they can be part of the student journey.

For some students this will add a new kind of pressure rather than reassurance – but if that is the case, then that pressure is already there whether or not they can see live marks. It’s certainly not fair for the detailed advice for parents to end at freshers week – when this is an experience they will live as a family for three or four years, and probably longer when the boomerang comes back.

One response to “Parents are at the sharp end of marketisation

  1. Sorry, I think this is coming at it from completely the wrong angle.
    Much of the problem is the removal of ownership and control of their own lives from young people, to an increasingly advanced age. Helicopter parents are responsible for infantilising their offspring, and not preparing them to make their own decisions and take responsibility for sorting themselves out.
    Pandering to the helicopter parents still further may address some short term issues but in the long term it will just exacerbate the problem.

    Yes, make the expectations of self-organisation, time-management, determination, self-discipline etc clear up front. Yes, acknowledge that regrettably many young people are coming from a sixth form experience that is over- controlling, compared to the days when it was more of a transition between normal school and HE or work, with greater freedom and responsibility – so HE starters may need more explicit support initially in transitioning.

    But these young people are adults. Reporting to their parents is not acceptable – they are responsible for themselves. And it only encourages some parents to carry on behaving as if their offspring is 8, not 18.

    Plus some parents, as well as not encouraging independence, are incredibly pressurising. There could be a huge impact on the mental health of students with such parents.

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