There is a cliché of the newly minted undergraduate waving away tearful parents as they embark on the next exciting chapter of their lives.
For many students, this picture is certainly true but it does reinforce the notion that at university, family life and student life do not coexist.
The reality, of course, is very different. Higher education providers are aware that for many students, there is an overlap of family and university, with the duties and responsibilities of one affecting the obligations and requirements of the other.
To that end, some universities have in place policies to support pregnant students, as well as supporting students who are parents in accessing family accommodation, financial hardship support, and childcare facilities. But this acknowledgement of the family only seems to work one way – it supports students with children but does not support children with parents.
The issue is parental inclusion. Reports detailing instances of students self-harming or taking their own lives have highlighted the very real issue of not just what sort of support is available but what the meaning of the word “support” actually is. Is “support” a specific term meaning the provision of specialist services? Is “support” something done to students in times of crisis, or is it holistically embedded into all areas of the university? Does “support” only include students? In other words, when do parents get involved? Should they be involved?
There are, unfortunately, no clear answers, only multiple layers of complication. For example, universities are beset on all sides by a bewildering array of legislative prohibitions and government guidelines that serve to drive the policy and practice of support.
Anyone who has undertaken General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) training will attest that sharing confidential information about a student to an outside party – including parents – is a clear breach of that student’s data protection.
However, the image of a faceless bureaucracy rebuffing the concerned welfare checks of anxious parents doesn’t quite match the more complex reality, especially in relation to mental health crisis intervention. A case in point is the debate surrounding if or when to contact parents or another appropriate adult when a student’s mental health noticeably deteriorates.
The notion that GDPR acts as an automatic block to emergency contact has recently been de-emphasised by a spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office stating recently that: “In an emergency, such as where there is a risk to human life, organisations should go ahead and share data as is necessary and proportionate.”
And some universities have done just that. So-called “opt-in” policies have been introduced by some institutions that allow universities to contact parents in the event of emergencies. But this is the exception, not the norm, as the majority of HEIs prefer to follow the OfS guidelines on mental health support that do not include the inclusion of parents.
But this is to give a somewhat false impression that student support is both medicalised and interventionist. Student support is an amorphous term that to universities can include financial advice, welfare and pastoral support, academic development support, disability inclusion, and of course mental health awareness, but to parents it may be something else entirely. Each university will have its own idea about what constitutes support and will invariably provide a number of student facing services. But the issue is just that; they are only student facing.
Even with the introduction of emergency contact agreements or emergency opt-in procedures, the expectations of students and parents coming from school or college into university may be profoundly at variance with the reality of higher education. The issue is whether universities prioritise either the needs of the students or the expectations of parents.
No more is this the case than for students arriving on campus with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC). It is broadly equivalent to the old “statements”, and came into effect after the Children and Families Act (2014) was passed. An EHC is for children and young people aged up to 25 who need more support than is available through special educational needs support.
What many do not realise is that EHCs do not apply to universities. Which of course makes any recommendations contained within them, and any previous measures put in place because of them, almost entirely redundant. The impact of this is felt by students and parents who soon realise that not only is there nothing to guarantee the support that was once in place only months before is still available, but moreover, if parents are to be included at all, it’s largely at the discretion of the university, and likely only in the event of an “opt-in” emergency.
Time for independence
To be fair to universities, focussing on the needs of students is both in keeping with the culture of an adult education environment and consistent with the Department for Education’s identified four key areas of risk for young people going to university, one of which being independent living – including managing finances, having realistic expectations of student life, as well as alcohol and drugs misuse. But for many parents who have been integral to the support of their children throughout school and college, the abrupt change from holistic support to independent living is more than a little disconcerting.
So, the question is whether universities should formally include parents into the fold. Purists would argue not, that it potentially causes more problems than it solves, and that it completely goes against the fundamentals of independence. The latter argument seems to be premised on the notion that independence is independence from parents, which is absurd given the same argument is never applied to students who are already parents.
Given that the presence of parents will continue to be felt within higher education, it is arguably only a matter of time before this thing called student support expands its scope to be even more inclusive to family needs.