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chief executive of Ucas, said that some parents were basing the advice that they gave their offspring on a “30-year-old out-of-date” idea of higher education.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“I think for middle-class parents, butt out, because they’ll be using a 30-year-old out-of-date model trying to advise their children,” she said.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.