Addressing families' concerns must be a priority, says Mandy Garner
Academics tend to groan when you mention the subject of parents. Whereas, in the past, parents often stayed in the background, the growing financial role they have taken since the maintenance grant was scrapped means they are now coming to the fore.
Universities have concocted various ways of providing more information about the issues that concern them - chiefly money, their children's career prospects and security. The advent of top-up fees has only added to their worries. Some universities have created websites for parents, such as Manchester's www.universityoptions.co.uk; others organise family days.
However, according to Catherine Dawson, a social researcher who specialises in student financial support, many parents, particularly those who have not been to university themselves, are in the dark about what is in store for their children. She is writing a book aimed at addressing their concerns.
There is only one other book aimed at parents in the UK, The Complete Parents' Guide to Higher Education , published by Trotman, and it is eight years old. This compares with the large number of publications available in the US, where parents are big players in higher education.
Dawson believes things are improving in the UK, but if people are unfamiliar with the system, she says, "a lot of information can be rendered almost invisible".
She says parents often don't know who to trust for impartial advice and cannot distinguish between the types of advice on offer.
Her research shows that parents' main concern is obtaining information on the costs. "Some thought that tuition fees included accommodation costs, others thought students automatically received free meals if they lived in halls," she says.
Many found the student financial support system confusing and couldn't understand what funds, if any, were available for their children.
Many reported confusion about the structure of the higher education system - for example, they didn't know what qualifications were needed. They also felt it was important to know more about how their children would be taught, what work would be required of them and what assessment procedures they would face.
Some felt they should have access to a report on their child's progress, especially if they had paid for the course. Dawson says they need more information about the Freedom of Information Act so they understand how much they are entitled to know.
Universities could, for example, clarify that while they are not able to discuss students' personal circumstances, they can discuss general institutional procedures with parents. She recommends that universities provide a direct contact for this.