Sector caught in parent trap

July 30, 2004

Parents are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to influence their childrens' choice of university, a national survey of admissions tutors by The Times Higher has found.

More than 80 per cent of heads of admissions offices who responded to the survey said that parents were having an increasing impact on how candidates choose courses and institutions.

Admissions tutors reported parents asking to attend interviews, phoning and pretending to be applicants, calling on behalf of postgraduate or mature applicants and, in one case, offering to sit in on the first six weeks of a course when their child was unable to attend.

Further investigations by The Times Higher have found that universities are being swamped by parents, who outnumber prospective students at open days.

A growing number of initial telephone or email inquiries about courses come from parents, even when the applicant is a mature student.

Some parents attempt to continue to be involved once a student has started a course by asking for progress reports and grades - forcing institutions to tread a fine line between responding to their demands and not falling foul of the Data Protection Act.

Jane Nelson, academic registrar at Wolverhampton University and chair of the Admissions Practitioners Group, which conducted the survey, said the rising cost of higher education and high-profile Government policies, such as top-up fees and the 50 per cent participation target in higher education, appeared to be the main reasons behind parents' growing interest in their childrens' choice of university.

She said the survey found that while admissions officers do not yet consider parents to be the single biggest influence on student choice, their increasing involvement is leading institutions to rethink how they handle parents' demands for information before and after a student joins a course.

"It is a difficult issue, particularly once a student is at university. We have to be careful and thoughtful about making sure it is the student we are talking to rather than their parents most of the time," she said.

The survey is based on the responses of 33 heads of admissions in universities - repre-senting about a third of the sector.

Kevin West, senior admissions tutor at Leicester University's Medical School, said there had been a 50-fold increase in the volume of inquiries from parents since he took up his post 14 years ago.

"It was relatively uncommon to see a parent at an open day when I first started. Now, most of the applicants are accompanied by a parent. Just finding room for everyone has become a tricky exercise, and we find it is parents who are now asking most of the questions," he said.

Dr West said some parents sought to persuade their children to choose a local university that would enable them to live at home.

"That may be for economic reasons or for cultural reasons in the case of a university such as Leicester, where many applications come from people from ethnic minority backgrounds," he said.

Some universities are responding to the growing parental interest by laying on special sessions for them at open days, holding "family days" throughout the year and including pages aimed at parents in their prospectuses.

Nottingham Trent University offer parents school workshops on choosing a university, student finance and student life, and runs family fun events for parents of primary school children.

Leeds Metropolitan University, which found in its own survey of first-year students that parents were the most important influence on final decisions about courses, is building a "toolkit" for parents to help them ask the right questions on university visits.

A spokeswoman for the university said: "Parents often don't appreciate that they should be able to look around a university at any time and sit in on a lecture to see what it's like."

But a spokesman for Warwick University said: "At the end of the day, the young person is going to want to go to the university that they think will help them realise their dreams. We would be horrified if it was a case of the parents choosing an institution for them."

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