On the march to fight tuition fees

December 8, 2000

Parents feel so strongly about their children's higher education that they have started carrying placards on protest marches. At the National Union of Students' demo in London last month, mothers joined their undergraduate sons and daughters to protest against tuition fees.

Karen Dumphie of the NUS said: "We noticed for the first time last year that parents were going out on our national demo to protest against tuition fees. It was mums - not dads as yet - who turned up with their student children, and they marched side by side again on November 15. They're not yet coming in large numbers, but we are keen to encourage them."

Universities are being forced to recognise and accommodate the emerging force of parent power as parents play an increasingly active role in every aspect of their offspring's student life. Recent research shows their influence on prospective undergraduates is greater than any other, including headteachers. Tuition fees and means-testing of student loans are tying undergraduates to their parents' purse-strings in unprecedented numbers, and institutions admit that those who pay the bursar are calling the tune.

They are now top of the guest list for many university open days as consumer power takes a tight grip on the education market. A few years ago a mere handful of pioneering parents broke down the barriers by accompanying their offspring on open days for prospective candidates, but recently that trickle has turned into a tidal wave.

Some universities have been speedier than others to react to the pressure of the parental lobby. They arrive armed with calculators and clipboards, league-table statistics and a carrier bag full of prospectuses, ready to give professors a grilling on the likely future employment prospects promised by a degree in any particular subject. They want to inspect the accommodation, know about security arrangements to keep their son or daughter safe and about pastoral and welfare services available to ensure that he or she settles happily to life away from home. The technological revolution has prompted many to inquire what IT facilities are on offer.

Many of them will be writing the cheques and are anxious to ensure they will get value for their money. The number of parents who now attend open days has grown so much that one sixth-former who recently went along to the University of East Anglia felt conspicuous and isolated because she was unaccompanied by an adult.

THE MONEY QUESTION: STOP A STUDENT STARVING

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show a staggering 40 per cent increase since 1997 in students living at home. Parental concern about finances is considered by many to be responsible.

The number of students living at home in July 1999 was 64,550, according to Hesa student definitions, compared with 46,0 in July 1997.

Although this is helping to take the pressure off the demand for accommodation, Stephen Boffey, director of admissions at the University of Hertfordshire, believes many are missing out on vital aspects of university life.

He said: "I would encourage my own children to go away to university because I believe it is an important part of the student experience."

Concerns over finances look set to escalate despite government predictions that 50 per cent of students will qualify to receive the maximum loan when the threshold on residual income rises from £17,805 to £20,000 next year. Currently, 44 per cent of students are exempt from tuition fees, with the remaining 56 per cent eligible to apply for 75 per cent of the loan.

The full loan is £4,590 for those living away from home in London and £3,445 elsewhere.

The sliding scale for the means-tested 25 per cent of the loan is calculated on a residual parental income of not more than £17,805 with allowances, which include a reduced contribution of £77 per dependent child. Details are on the Department for Education and Employment website ( w w ).

How young undergraduates cope with their finances is one of the greatest concerns facing parents, who are frequently shocked to discover that the Data Protection Act makes it impossible for banks to discuss a customer's account with even the most persistent parent - although student advisers at the branch will often recommend that undergraduates talk to their family if they face difficulty.

Matt Young, a spokesman for Abbey National, believes the bank's early-warning service to alert students if their overdrafts are approaching the limit is the first to address parental concerns in this way.

He said: "We have to interact with parents subtly because of legal implications. The early-warning system enables us to demonstrate that we are a responsible lender, and the warning letter can alert parents to potential problems."

Ann-Marie Blake, head of student banking at National Westminster Bank, said: "Our hands are tied. We find that nowadays, with parents acutely aware of the issues students are facing, many sit down with their children and talk about finances in detail before they leave home."

Parent power looks set to stretch beyond educational and banking institutions as one of the first retail companies to spot a profit potential launches a new product. Food retailer Iceland is running a three-month trial to discover if worried parents are prepared to purchase food parcels for their starving student offspring.

The student survival pack contains a fortnight's supply of groceries and costs £40 a time for delivery to the student's door, complete with recipe ideas and a personalised message. The pack provides breakfasts, snacks, drinks,14 evening meals and essentials such as toilet tissue.

It is the brainchild of Leeds Metropolitan University student Ben Dutton, who said: "When you're at university with a limited budget and no transport, it is difficult to shop and plan balanced meals. The only thing students will be disappointed with is that Iceland has decided the packs won't include any booze."

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