It's open day - feel free to bring your children (2)

July 30, 2004

Fathers and mothers take such an active role in their kids' decisions about where to study that universities have altered open days to give potential students a chance to ask questions on their own. Times Higher reporters witnessed parent power in action at Sheffield University and King's College London.

SHEFFIELD

The summer vacation is usually the quietest time on campus. But two weeks ago, Sheffield University was buzzing with red-shirted students armed with "can I help you?" signs. Academics were everywhere, giving talks and tours of their departments; administrative staff were manning information desks; and the university's cafés and restaurants were heaving.

Over the past three years, Sheffield's recruitment managers have overhauled the traditional open-day format in response to significant shifts in the profile and expectations of their visitors.

Topping the list of changes is the emergence of parent power as an increasingly influential force in prospective students' choice of institution.

Parents now outnumber their children at Sheffield's open days, and organisers are doing their best to cater for their needs and demands.

Gone are the days when Sheffield would encourage schools to send bus-loads of children to mooch aimlessly around the campus without the aid of a parent's potentially more critical eye.

Paul Govey, Sheffield's head of UK and European Union recruitment, explained: "While we do not discourage that, we felt that individuals would get more out of the visits because they were choosing where to go rather than the school. And to be honest, the parents are key stakeholders, so them bringing their kids to the university is the way we see things going now."

The new format, which includes more open days during the summer holidays, and an extra one at Easter to catch early decision-makers, has proved highly popular. The number of visitors rose to 10,500 last year, 40 per cent more than in the previous year.

To help cope with the numbers, Sheffield introduced an airline-style online booking system, and it now handles more than 80 per cent of requests.

Places are booked for departmental visits, which supplement a rolling programme of general drop-in talks and an exhibition with information points on student finance, accommodation and careers.

Mr Govey said the booking system was partly a response to the discovery that about 75 per cent of parents attending had never visited a university before.

"Taking that into account, we wanted (to have) a more face-to-face friendly approach and to avoid giving the impression that we are the bastions of academia with our gates shut to outsiders. We do not want to seem mysterious, or like we are saying 'give us your child and you will see them in three years'," he said.

Parents, whose attitudes may be influenced by the growing cost of higher education, tend to focus their questions on the standard of accommodation, safety and the career potential offered by courses.

They are also increasingly interested in how easy it might be for their children to get a part-time job to help make ends meet while studying.

Mr Govey said: "I don't think finance is putting people off. But I think it is important in terms of the questions parents ask such as what is the career value of a particular degree."

Some parents, such as Anthony Brewer from Wolverhampton, who was accompanying his son, Richard, come armed with long lists of questions.

Others, such as Gerald Andrews from Stratford-upon-Avon, who was visiting Sheffield with his son, Tom, place a lot of emphasis on getting a "feel" for the place and talking to staff. And if the impression isn't favourable, they may try to sway their child's opinion.

Mr Andrews said: "We will sit down with Tom and go through what we feel about the place. The extent to which my opinion will count I am not sure, but I would like to think it will have some influence. The visit will certainly make a difference. We may say to Tom 'remember on the open day you felt this or that'."

Brian Taylor, senior experimental officer in the chemistry department at Sheffield, said he was "flabbergasted" by an "exponential growth" in the number of parent visitors. "Many of them have probably never been in a university chemistry department before, so it can be quite an eye-opener for them. I suppose the more cynical among them are maybe trying to check out what their tax pounds are being spent on."

Mr Govey said: "I assume market forces will begin to play a more dominant part in the future. Students and parents might start to say they have been to 'University X' and been offered a free laptop, so what are we going to offer?

"I think it just has to be about value for money, which means getting the best possible degree that offers the best career opportunities. That is the bottom line as far as parents are concerned. Everything else is just an add-on."

'IT IS ABOUT KNOWING YOUR BABY WILL BE SETTLED SOMEWHERE SAFE'

  • Sue Hopwood had never been to university, so it was important to her to travel from her home in Hampshire to see what her son Ben was "letting himself in for".

    She said: "It is about knowing that your baby will be settled somewhere safe."

    Ms Hopwood, a nurse, said she hoped to have a "balanced discussion" with Ben about his choice of university. "We would not say 'you are definitely not going there' unless something fairly major was wrong," she said.

    Ben, who plans to read history, considers his parents' views to be a factor in his decision. He said: "If I really loved a place and they really hated it, I would take some notice. They are sensible people, and I would take their point of view into account."
  • Gary Clarke said he knew his daughter Emma was a hard worker, so he considered the £540 a month he thought her higher education would cost to be a good investment.

    Mr Clarke, a solicitor, believed Emma would listen to his view on her choice of university if he was careful about how he presented it.

    He said: "What I tend to do is plant a seed, rather than trying to tell her what to do. At the end of the day, it is her decision."

    Emma, who hopes to read French studies or modern languages, said: "I would like to know if he liked somewhere as well. If there are a few things he is not sure about, we will talk them through."
  • Denise Pearson is clear that it is her job as a parent to "pick out the pitfalls" while accompanying her daughter Nicole on an open day.

    She said: "Nicole will be looking at all the positive things, but I will be looking out for any possible problems.

    "We know it is a good university, so we will be looking at things such as its location, the quality of accommodation and the general feel of the place," she said.

    Nicole, who hopes to read history, said: "I would appreciate my mum's views. I would not like to make the decision entirely by myself."

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