Leader: Parents should cut apron strings

July 30, 2004

Parents and professors agree that going to university is one of the most significant events in a young person's life. But our survey marking the start of our series on university admissions shows that parents are finding it increasingly difficult to leave their children to make big decisions about higher education for themselves. They are inquiring about courses, showing up at interviews, and even pestering lecturers about their children's progress once they are on a course.

Going to university is an integral part of becoming an adult for an increasing number of young people. It is understandable that parents want them to get it right. For one thing, the sums of money involved are too large to be ignored. In addition, university expansion of previous decades means that more parents than before are graduates themselves and are well informed about what is involved in higher education.

But university is an experience for students, not their families. It is inevitable that families will offer advice. But parents who go beyond this level of involvement show a lack of trust in their children at the time when it is most appropriate to ask them to make their own decisions. They are also subverting the role of schools and well-informed sixth-form teachers.

University is a machine for instilling skills and knowledge in students. At the most fundamental level, this is a transaction between student and academic that can be damaged by outsiders muscling in.

Universities may have to be more robust in fending off excessive parental demands for access and information. But in time, things might get a little easier. The Higher Education Act will push the horror of paying for university deep into the future, and make it a problem for students to face when they become wage-earners themselves. This may encourage a more relaxed attitude among parents.

For their part, parents could try to regard their children's departure for college as a release. Their offspring will be enough of a nuisance during those long holidays. And if parents are really interested in universities, they will find that many institutions are keener than ever on highly motivated mature students.

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