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Parents – partners or interference?

Nicola Barden, of the University of Winchester, says that universities and parents can be partners in supporting students - but we need to agree on what that means.
This article is more than 6 years old

Nicola Barden is Director of Student Services at the University of Winchester, and an Executive Member of AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation.

We’ve all heard the cries of “students are adults”, and comments about “helicopter parents”, but increasingly parents express concerns about being excluded from their children’s welfare once they start at university.

Parents and carers are the people we want to see when students need a helping hand that is beyond the university’s power to deliver. This could be financially (the bank of mum and dad), emotionally (going home for some TLC after a bad week), and in emergencies (who else will come out at midnight?) – but the law is clear that students are autonomous adults and have a right to be in control of their own information and choices. Universities are not in loco parentis, but they do have a duty of care to their students. So how, as HE institutions, can we view and engage with parental involvement, and consider the possibility that they too can be partners in education, while also respecting the rights of students to lead their own adult lives?

For the purposes of this discussion I will use the word ‘”parents”, but actually mean all those with parental responsibilities, as patterns of family life are now so varied that the role is no longer restricted to just two biological relationships.

“Consumer” rights

For all the changes to HE over the past 30 years there is still, generally speaking, a traditional view of the role that parents should play in it, which is to deliver their student at the start of the year, collect them again at the end, and to be contactable in between in the event of an emergency. But 30 years ago students weren’t having to pay so directly for their education. The impact of student fees has not only been on students’ finances, but on their whole relationship with the university experience which, rightly or wrongly, is increasingly perceived as a “purchase”. And similarly, the higher tuition fees and living costs can impact on parents’ finances and relationships with university. If your 18-year-old was buying a £27,000 car, regardless of how much you’d contributed what are the chances that you wouldn’t want to go to the garage with them, go on the test drive, be there to negotiate a fair deal, and follow up on any faults that were picked up in the warranty period?

Of course education isn’t a car purchase. We want students to be partners in learning – how else do you learn? – and to be independent learners and individuals. But if it takes a village to raise a child, it now takes a family to put that child through university, which brings an opportunity to include parents as allies not opponents in the process. If parents are kept in the dark about how they can participate and only told about how they can’t, where else do they have to go but into opposition with their concerns?

Students as independent learners

But then – students are indeed adults. Not all parent-child relationships are good ones. And taking the responsibility to work your own way through problems is part of becoming independent. And importantly, if students don’t feel they can trust the university to let them be in charge of their own lives, to keep their concerns and failings private unless requested otherwise, then will they feel able come forward to seek the very help and support that parents are anxious to ensure they receive? We can’t assume that they will want their parents to know – well, anything, really.

So what can we do?

Be positive about parents

We should make parents part of induction. They should know about the support services available and how the student can get hold of them, so they can point them in the right direction when the time comes. They should understand the difference between permission to share information and becoming the student’s representative. They should have access to this information online, perhaps on pages specifically for parents and families, so they can go back and look at it again later. We want parents to trust us to have the student’s best interests at heart, so we need to demonstrate how we do this and why.

And we need to value their opinion. For every over-anxious parent who is worried because the usual four-hourly text has not come through, there is another whose gut feeling that something is wrong will be accurate. We need to have flexible ways of responding that enable us to weigh up their concerns alongside evidence we may already have. And there is much to be gained from talking parents through the procedures that happen if we are alerted to concerns, even if we can’t disclose any details about their specific concerns.

Be positive about boundaries

Just as important is that parents should understand why professional services and faculty staff cannot talk to them directly without the student’s written agreement and that this is in the student’s best interests. This is our legal obligation. Confidentiality belongs to the student – it is not ours to give away, unless we have major concerns about serious harm or risk to life, and good reason to believe that disclosure will be helpful. And it may not always be – family relationships are complex. Universities already can and do seek consent on a need-to basis. We can and do override this in the most serious of circumstances, based on the best risk assessment that can be made at the time. Sometimes this means talking to parents; sometimes to others that the student feels safer with; sometimes with statutory services who themselves will make decisions about contacting families.

Be very careful about policy changes

Should parental contact be a default arrangement? As a policy suggestion, this has implications needing some serious thought. How informed is a student when they enrol at university about the sorts of things that may come under this rubric – would they really know what they were consenting to? How would they say no, if pushy parents wanted them to say yes? How would we explain to the parent that permission had not been given if they thought it had been, potentially worsening an already difficult situation? It is not simple – if it was, it would already have happened.

Back to partnership

What is simple is that we all want the best for students; parents as parents, and universities as educators and supporters of students in education. That surely has the makings of a useful partnership.

One response to “Parents – partners or interference?

  1. Great article touching upon the tricky issues facing HEIs. Educating parents, guardians, spouses and partners is just as important as educating students. If they all know the pinch points in each academic year then they are better placed to watch out for issues. But we need to be mindful that family members may be part of the issue causing student stress and anxiety. This is my concern regarding the Universities Minister’s suggestion that parents should be informed about wellbeing and mental health episodes of their son or daughter. Some students may be willing to opt in to a parent disclosure scheme but my worry would be that students may feel or be put under pressure to opt in.

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