The curse of the mummies

Sally Feldman has spotted a new breed of troublemaker appearing on campus

September 25, 2008

It's induction time again, when auditoriums up and down the land are ringing with hope, promises and exhortations. Jaded dons and deans are leaping on to creaking podiums, faces forced into good cheer and bonhomie as they welcome the new intake, calm their fears and fuel their dreams.

But when you survey the mass of eager young faces on their first day - the wide-eyed, the giggly, the nervous, the ones who've made it to the wrong session - have you, like me, started to notice a new breed of trouble-makers?

I don't mean the jokers in the back row, sipping their Slurpies and putting their feet up as they fiddle with their iPods. And I'm not referring to the mouthy hoodies who snigger when you suggest that this is the beginning of a great educational adventure and roll their eyes if you promise a fabulous future. We know how to deal with those.

Far more sinister are the assiduous ones with their heads down, taking copious notes and raising their hands politely to ask whether the TV studio is equipped with fibre-optic links and to check the library opening hours. These are the new infiltrators, and you need a practised eye to spot them.

Just this week, I was accosted in the corridor by two nicely turned-out young women asking for directions. "What course are you on?" I asked the first one. She said she was doing fashion design. I turned to her companion. "And how about you?" "I'm her mother," she snapped, only mildly flattered.

Be warned: there are more parents on campus each year, and more and more of them could pass for students. When I explain to the freshers how important it is that they're being taught by industry professionals and list the credentials of the staff, I'll mention that a radio colleague used to produce a morning slot on Radio 2.

"How many of you listen to Terry Wogan?" I'll ask. Until recently I'd just get a few blank looks. Now there's a sea of raised hands. It's the parents, of course, who are the devoted listeners. They've popped in to catch the dean, fresh from making sure that Samantha's got room for her spare duvet and that there's internet access for the laptop.

As a result, I've altered my pitch completely. Instead of stressing the high risks of a career in the fast lane I talk about increasing employability in the creative industries. Instead of encouraging them to consider clubbing, drinking and staying up all night to be part of the university experience, I'll remind them of the importance of meeting deadlines and of behaving courteously, just as their mothers will have taught them. You can almost see Surbiton preen.

These days, you find parents turning up at everything - asking the most awkward questions at open days, trying to gatecrash admissions interviews, threatening to take the matter up with the vice-chancellor in a strongly worded letter if their darling Clarissa or Tarquin failed to secure a place.

One mother did just that last year, copying in her local MP for good measure. Adrian's music teacher thought he was exceptionally talented, so why wasn't he accepted on the performance course? I wrote back my usual bland assurances that all procedures had been followed correctly and wishing Adrian every success at clearing.

But Adrian's mother, who unluckily had a further degree in educational administration, decided to play nasty by questioning the conditions in which Adrian's drumming audition had taken place. OK, so the student bar wasn't ideal - but hey, he's no Ginger Baker just yet. So why not face life as it really is?

Sometimes parents resort to bribery. A colleague in multimedia swears he was offered Viagra to accept a masters student. Another is regularly tempted by cheap air tickets - albeit to Dubai. Someone rang me recently to say I should give his son another chance to progress into the third year since he was a friend of my local rabbi and things might go badly for me if I didn't cooperate. Either Melvyn passed into this world or I'd be banned from the next.

Parents are interfering more and more because they are paying steep fees and want to check out their investment. And because they've paid, they have come to insist on their children's right not just to a good education but to a good degree. They're the helicopter brigade, constantly hovering over every achievement and buzzing over every B minus.

It's rare that data protection works in our favour, but it does come in handy when they phone up to ask for assessment results. "Emily is so lucky to have such a caring family," I'll gush treacherously. "But I'm afraid that it's Emily who is our (watch it, ugly word coming up) customer. And I'm not legally allowed to release her marks, not even to you."

Some universities have bowed to the inevitable and now go out of their way to accommodate overprotective parents. They offer liaison sessions, parents' evenings, coffee mornings, even taster sessions. But that, to me, is a negation of one of the most precious values of university life: independence.

This is a time for experimenting, for making choices and making mistakes, for taking responsibility without having any responsibilities. Students should be so many Kerouacs striking out On the Road, so many Cinderellas stepping out at the ball.

It's healthy to be out there alone and having to work out all by yourself how to get home. And no matter what sacrifices parents have made to send their children to us, the biggest of all should be to stay away.

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