Middle-class parents told to ‘butt out’ of university open days

Head of UK admissions service Mary Curnock Cook addresses concerns that universities might ‘not hear a word’ from applicants

September 9, 2016
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Middle-class parents have been told to “butt out” of their children’s university open days by the head of the UK’s admissions service.

Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, said that some parents were basing the advice that they gave their offspring on a “30-year-old out-of-date” idea of higher education.

Ms Curnock Cook was part of a panel that debated the issue at the inaugural Festival of Higher Education, held at the University of Buckingham on 8 and 9 September.

Panellists were reacting to comments by Katie Grant, a consultant fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, who said that she had been on open days where the parents asked all the questions and you would “not hear a word” from potential students.

Samina Khan, director of admissions at the University of Oxford, acknowledged that it was an issue and said that her institution had needed to devise techniques to allow applicants to have their say.

“Parents are always welcome but, sometimes, let the child talk,” Dr Khan said. “We’ve developed programmes where we separate them: the parents go off, have a cup of tea, and we take the students elsewhere. We find that does work, that it helps students speak for themselves, which is what we want.”

James Seymour, Buckingham’s director of admissions and recruitment, said that the festival coincided with one of the institution’s medicine selection days and that sometimes staff “genuinely have to shoehorn parents out of the room” before assessments.

But Robbie Pickles, head of student recruitment at the University of Bath, said there were some cases, often involving students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, where universities wanted “to see more from parents on open days”.

“There are some sets of families where students are very keen to go [to university] and it’s parents who are driving them towards not going on to study,” Mr Pickles said. “There are groups of students where it would be nice to see their parents engage more, particularly students from certain areas of the country.”

Ms Curnock Cook said that both arguments were right in their own way.

“I think for middle-class parents, butt out, because they’ll be using a 30-year-old out-of-date model trying to advise their children,” she said. “Where kids are [the] first in [a] family to go, actually persuading parents that it’s the right thing is a really important part of making a child feel comfortable.”

Giving a keynote address at the festival, Ms Curnock Cook said that Ucas would consider further changes to the student application process.

She said that she hoped a trial where universities can approach students directly once projected grades are on the admissions service’s system would become much more “mainstream”, arguing that it could help to widen access to the most selective universities.

“I think this could be revolutionary in breaking down barriers for more disadvantaged students who perhaps don’t know just how good they are,” Ms Curnock Cook said.

Ms Curnock Cook also said that she had asked Ucas staff to consider whether anything had changed to make a post-qualifications application (PQA) system more workable since 2012, when the plans were rejected in the face of opposition from schools and universities. A PQA system would see students apply to university after getting their school results, rather than on the basis of predicted grades.

She said that her view was that there had “probably not” been a shift in favour of such a system, but that Ucas was “very open to having another look” at it.


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Reader's comments (6)

As a parent of a child who has jointly attended several Open Days during this university application cycle, I find it disturbing that such a clearly sanctimonious and supercilious person as Curnock Cook has any role to play in the university admissions process, since she is clearly divorced from the realities that most families and their children jointly face when applying to university. The privileged like Cook may not have much concern when their offspring are borrowing £28500 tuition fees plus significant maintenance funds over three years. However, those of us for whom such borrowing is a major undertaking and worry are going to take every opportunity to visit the halls of residence and university departments that our child will be attending. Yes, I want to know how much the lab equipment that my daughter needs for her course will cost, how much the associated field course will cost, I want some idea about the cost of text books/reprographics, I want to know how much meals will cost in halls and when they are available, I want to see first hand the types of accommodation which are provided, their quality, provision, costs and location, I want to know how many hours of contact time she will receive, I want to see the university facilities again first hand and not in a glossy brochure and I want to know about the drop out/failure rates in year 1 and why they occur During the Open Day of one of the universities which we attended, the parents were invited en masse to a separate room where we could quiz the Dean and faculty staff on any issue. This lasted for nearly an hour and the staff provided very useful and what I felt was honest, face to face information (not universally available in the university sector) over an extensive variety of topics. I should add that the applicants were scheduled to meet staff in the laboratories during this time, so that they could ask their own questions about the course, university and accommodation. I suggest that it is Cook who should "butt out" and leave the structure and design of Open Days to responsible and responsive university staff, to those who might wish to study there and to those who pay a far higher proportion of their annual income in maintaining the university system than she does.
Good for you for having your say!! and well done for seeing through the 'qualities' of the author. There is much more of this type of 'external' meddling than you might imagine; UCAS itself is an institution that has been under a spotlight for its existence more than once, with many academics questioning its 'value added'. You would have thought that they would just serve their clients rather than involve themselves in matters which have little to do with them ... they of course might not agree. In 'old currency' we could identify this pratice as 'Empire Building', using a tried and tested method of convincing weak people that a problem exists at the same time as offering them a solution ... there are currently many weak people running non academic offices in Universities!! and many many external 'experts' offering them 'expert' assistance; at a price. A price which is met out of the fees that your offspring borrow funds for. If you ever go to another open day, ask for the breakdown of external spending on non-academic services ... and wait for the reaction.
Apologies to Chris Havergal; when writing 'the author' I meant to refer to the 'subject', ie Mary Curnock Cook.
I think that it is Curnock Cook who is out of date, and seriously out of touch, as evidenced by these comments. Her attitude is arrogant and dismissive. My mother came with me to open days because nobody in my family had ever even contemplated going to university before, and she didn't actually know what happened at such a place.
Is this a new phenomenon ? It is hardly promoting the self-reliance we expect of students once they matriculate to have their mum in tow to attend an open day. I was a "first in my family" and indeed it was exciting and energising to be making a big decision without having parents interfering. My own children were the same and were very happy with their choices to.
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