There is a fine line between an intrusive, 'intensive' parent and a mother who just wants to ensure that her child makes the most of her chances. Alison Utley reports.
A mother and father turned up at a recent open day for prospective applicants to Manchester University. These days, it is not uncommon to see parents at such events. What made this case a little unusual, however, was that they arrived minus their son, who was considering reading history. While they were keen to hear about the course and facilities on offer, he was apparently too busy to attend.
The idea that university is the start of freedom from parental control is fading fast. Now extended adolescence means 18-year-olds rely increasingly on their parents not only for financial help but for advice about what and where to study for a degree.
This trend is linked to the growth of "intensive parenting" according to Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at the Institute of Education, who gave a key lecture on the subject earlier this month. "Until now we have assumed that students made autonomous choices about their higher education," he says. "But in fact they are composite choices made often by the whole family, with the mother particularly significant. This has a good and a bad side to it." On the up side, he says, family support is always to be encouraged. The danger is knowing when support becomes pressure.
Rupa Huq, an admissions tutor in leisure management at Manchester, has noticed a steady increase in parental involvement in the admissions cycle.
"It happens at all stages of the process," she says. "Even as recently as ten years ago, applicants would not have been seen dead on campus with their parents in tow, but now they have become so well established at open days that we have begun running a session just for parents. It is really to keep them out of the way as we found they were dominating the day and intimidating the students. Their presence changes the whole dynamic." The parents-only session focuses on their particular concerns, which tend to involve fees, loans, accommodation costs, personal security and pastoral care, leaving the students free to find out about campus social life.
Gill Rowley, research fellow at the Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, says she has been shocked by the extent of parental involvement in applications. "It has been a real awakening to me just how closely involved the parents have become," she says. "Whether it is because pupils have got used to being spoon-fed or whether parents are more likely to have direct experience of university and know how to make it work in favour of their offspring is difficult to determine."
But parents are not always helpful to their children in the university admissions process. "It really depends on the parent because quite often they are as clueless as the applicant, if not more so," Huq says. "And they can exert unwelcome pressure."
A new study by Miriam David, professor of policy studies at Keele University, exploring parental involvement in students' higher education choices, highlights the pressure some parents place on their children to follow certain routes based on their own, sometimes limited, experience.
One mother said: "There were places I definitely didn't want her to go. I said, 'No way are you going to Salford in Manchester. They are calling it Gunchester these days.' I wouldn't feel she was safe."
Nor does parental input stop when the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service choices have been made. Huq recently had an irate father on the phone demanding to know why his child's application had been rejected. "It was very uncomfortable, and I didn't really want to deal with him directly," she recalls. "Not least because it's difficult to know what the legal position is in terms of data protection as the applicant is no longer a minor."
Increasingly, parents regard themselves as paying customers of higher education and this shift, coupled with an emerging complaints culture, seems to be driving the phenomenon. But pushy parents in Volvos exercising their rights as consumers of ever more expensive degree programmes are only half the story. Lower down the socioeconomic scale, parents are frequently reluctant to engage with their children's higher education despite initiatives to widen participation.
A good predictor of likely parental involvement is the amount of effort channelled into selecting children's schools, says John Knowles, a widening participation coordinator at the University of Lincoln. "How children enter school often translates into higher education, so if a family simply opted for the nearest or most convenient school, they may not be thinking all that much about progression."
He believes that parental input is crucial in preventing reluctant learners from slipping through the higher education net and tries to make contacts with parents when their children are still at primary school because it is easier to access them then than when their children are older. Lincoln University often lays on transport and buffets at presentation events held in schools, but still only a handful of parents generally attends. One session, which aimed to help children get through their GCSEs, was attended by 15 children and only three parents, two of whom were married to each other.
Gifted youngsters with no family connection to university present a particular problem, Knowles says. "What we come across all the time is cultural distance from higher education rather than any active prejudice," he says. "And of course you can't pressurise parents or they'll run a mile."
However, David's study of 120 young people applying to university found that in both middle-class and lower-income families mothers played an influential role in students' higher education choices. Students who volunteered their parents for interview as part of the study were far more likely to choose their mothers than their fathers. "The fact that we interviewed more mothers suggests that mothers remain the more regularly responsible parent," she says. "It also links with changes in the gender gap in higher education because more and more women are likely to have studied at degree level themselves."
There were other gender differences, too. Boys often sought to prevent parents from becoming involved in the research, sometimes because they wanted to protect their parents, sometimes because they wanted to protect themselves. Some boys, particularly at state schools, did not want parents to focus on their school work as many of them felt they were performing poorly. Typically, students said their father would be too busy working and would not want to be disturbed.
David found that female students tend to collaborate with their mothers - and their friends - when choosing universities, whereas male students try to adopt a "more individualistic" approach, preferring not to ask for parental advice.
The research - which follows university applicants from five schools in London from different family, class and ethnic backgrounds - suggests a more complicated picture than just that of middle-class parents being pushier than those from other backgrounds. For example, the parents of children in private schools tend towards a more hands-off approach, mainly because they trusted the schools to advise pupils effectively. "These highly educated elite families had invested heavily in the private school and could afford this approach," the study says. By contrast, middle-class parents of state-school children exhibited more anxieties and fear of their children's failure.
Not all the pupils in the study got parental help. Khalid, for instance, says: "I've got a lot of brothers and sisters so it's really difficult for my parents to give a lot of attention to just one so I didn't get any advice at all, they left it all to me." But many working-class parents do see higher education as necessary because of the changes they perceive in the labour market. Unlike middle-class parents, who attempt to reproduce their own educational patterns, however, they want to transform their children's educational fates.
The study also identifies some middle-class parents who regret their laid-back approach to their children's higher education. One mother chided herself because her son's Ucas application had been delayed, despite the fact that she taught in an art college and her husband had been to Oxford University: "We did start to think about it at the beginning, but we didn't quite realise how early we had to apply for universities and neither did he. He couldn't get it together to fill in the form and he gave it to me so late, we didn't realise that his predicted grades had such an influence on the Ucas form. If we'd known, we'd have pushed him harder in his mocks."
A familial face on campus
After Caroline Malendewicz transferred from Kingston University to Oxford Brookes University for the third year of her geology degree, she was forever bumping into her mother on campus. It was not that her mother, Pamela, was a pushy parent, but rather that she was already an undergraduate at the college.
Both mother and daughter describe studying at Oxford Brookes at the same time as "a scream". Pamela, who was studying anthropology, would often accompany her daughter to the geology department to pick up work.
"The puzzlement among students and staff because they couldn't understand why she had to bring her mother was very funny," Pamela says.
The university administration was also often confused. "They weren't expecting one Malendewicz, let alone two," Caroline says.
The pair regularly met in the student bar and joined each other's friends.
"Mine wound me up by telling Caroline, 'Your mother fancied the lecturer'," Pamela says. She did occasionally revert to her motherly role when she would nag her daughter for smoking. But, Caroline says, sometimes it helped to know that there was someone there not too far from home.
Although Caroline has since married and moved away, she says they both often look back on their undergraduate days together and laugh. It has given them more shared topics and funny stories than most mothers and daughters.
Both say the university made it easy to mix between age groups and feel equal, but their experiences since have been different. While Caroline, 24, has found people generally impressed with her degree, Pamela, 54, has discovered much ageism in the job market.
Pamela hopes to go back and study for an MA at Oxford Brookes, where another of her daughters is now an undergraduate.