Parents' growing involvement in the admissions process means answering their concerns - just don't divulge any confidential information, advises Harriet Swain.
So you thought you'd be able to avoid parents now that you're a grown-up academic? No chance. They'll be on your case about applications, the quality of your course, career options, exams - and you'll still be relying on them for money, so you can't just respond: "Yeah, like, whatever."
A recent survey of heads of admissions by The Times Higher found that parents were having an increasing impact on universities, particularly during the admissions process - parents routinely attend open days.
Carey Singleton, director of student recruitment and schools liaison at Reading University, says it is essential to find out parents' concerns and deal with them whenever you formally come into contact with parents - the open day being the principal meeting point. (Here, she says, separate sessions for students and parents allow each to ask questions without embarrassing the other.) Reading also produces a parents' guide - useful, says Singleton, because many questions are perennial. Other institutions produce a parents' newsletter, keeping them informed about general university events.
But most parents' concerns focus on three aspects of their child's time at university: finance, career prospects and safety. Providing clear and relevant information on these three points and avoiding flippant remarks about, say, local yob culture or crippling debt are good ways to keep them on side. On the other hand, it is equally important to be honest. It is no good for either party if students end up at an institution that does not suit them.
Although universities should try to make a good impression, says Singleton, they shouldn't go over the top. For example, academics will generally smarten up a bit for open days, but "we won't say to everyone that they should get out their suit".
Jane Robson, head of marketing at Leeds Metropolitan University, says what most influences parents is "the look and feel" of the place. She believes the university's recent rebranding and refurbishing will help, but personal contact is most influential. "If we have an open day and a member of staff from the university engages with a parent and talks to them and is helpful, then that is what works," she says.
Kate Brown, who organises the parent programme at Sheffield Hallam University's open days, says informality is key. Providing a comfy seat, refreshments and one-to-one contact allows them to open up and ask the questions that really concern them.
While many universities ensure that students and recent graduates are on hand to answer questions, Sheffield Hallam also asks staff with children at the university to attend and to answer queries parent to parent.
One Sheffield Hallam parent, Carol White, who works in the university's catering department, says she was most keen to hear about bursaries and loans - the university lays on special sessions for prospective parents with a financial adviser from the students' union. She had been to other university open days, and it was exactly the "look and feel" mentioned by Robson that most influenced her. Hearsay was also a factor - she had heard horror stories about safety in one city that had put her off encouraging her daughter to go there.
The importance of word-of-mouth reputation should not be underestimated, says Stephen Ball, professor of sociology at the Institute of Education, who has carried out a study of student choices of higher education.
He says that middle-class parents are particularly unlikely to be swayed by glossy newsletters or open days. "Most middle-class parents have very fixed views about what is a good university, based on traditional patterns of Oxford, Cambridge, then Bristol, Durham and so on," he says. "They are very wary of new universities."
Extravagant marketing campaigns may even backfire, he suggests, since many of the students he interviewed took the view that if a university had to advertise it couldn't be any good. The only way to change perception, says Ball, is experience. Parents are influenced by what he calls "hot knowledge" - the personal experiences of themselves or their friends or relatives - rather than by "cold knowledge" - attempts by an institution to sell itself.
This suggests that universities need to continue to make a favourable impression with parents well beyond open day. Many answer queries throughout the student's time at the institution - Singleton was once asked by a parent to recommend the best kind of washing machine for their student offspring (and did so) - but there are dangers in being too helpful.
The Data Protection Act makes it illegal to disclose a student's personal information to a third party without the student's permission, and parents have to be told firmly, but tactfully, that there are certain things they are just not entitled to know now that their offspring is an adult.
If Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting , had his way, they would be told that more regularly. "Universities need to do far more to tell parents that this isn't school," he says. "The relationship with their children is a confidential one rather than the kind at school when you provide them with regular reports." He argues that, in an ideal world, parents should not be involved in applications or open days at all. But given that the university system has now decided to go down that route, academics should use every opportunity to encourage parents to allow their children some room.
Further information Frank Furedi, Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child , A Capella Publishing, 2002 Data Protection Act www.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/19980029.htm
- Be friendly and informal
- Give useful advice about finance and student safety
- Foster a good reputation
- Bear in mind the requirements of data protection legislation
- Remember: students come before parents