Your leader and the article by Frank Furedi ("You'll always be my baby", THES , March 23) raise important issues about the role of parents as "consumers" in higher education.
In our Economic and Social Research Council-funded study, Stephen Ball, Diane Reay and I found that parents may indeed be involved in how students make their choices, but their interests and influences differed considerably according to social class, ethnicity/race, gender and their own experiences.
We surveyed more than 500 students in a range of London institutions and interviewed 120 students and 40 parents. We found that mothers were the more involved parents, and were suggested far more frequently by the students as the parents to approach than were fathers. They were also the more involved in "consumer" activities such as checking websites, reviewing prospectuses, going to open days. But these varied depending on the way schools organised things and parental prior knowledge, such as having been to university.
The least educated parents tended not to be involved, and their children chose not to consult them. Equally, the more highly educated the parents, the less directly involved in the details of day-to-day processes they tended to be.
But there were differences depending on schools' practices and often the student's gender. Many held strong views about the appropriateness of particular universities for their children, with ethnic composition and mix featuring strongly. Several mothers of daughters were very involved.
One mother told us: "We were really in the dark and we hadn't anybody to talk to the girls about it at all. Finances are very much a concern."
But another mother said: "There were places I definitely did not want her to go to. No, no way you are going there, because I know Manchester. They are calling it Gunchester these days."
A third said: "I went through the prospectuses and I mean I have to be careful because I can be overbearing sometimes. It's her course (but) I have been through university quite recently."
Despite finding that, on the whole, fathers were more distant parents, some were very assertive about what kinds of higher education they wanted and tried to influences choices, particularly for their sons.
The patterns and processes of parental and student involvement in choices are complex. It is not simply an issue of who gets in, but who goes where and why. The move to a mass system means it is increasingly important that we think about the different sorts of higher educations on offer. The system may be mass but it is certainly not equal or common, and parents and students clearly understand and reflect this in the pattern of their choices. Government policies also continue to exacerbate distinctions between types of universities and their student clientele.
Miriam E. David
Professor of policy studies University of Keele