Staff exposed to parent rage

July 7, 2006

Academics feel vulnerable as they are subjected to aggressive demands, write Jessica Shepherd and Phil Baty

Parents are becoming increasingly aggressive towards university staff, demanding information on their children's progress to ensure value for money, universities were warned this week.

This hostile behaviour is leaving lecturers, admissions tutors and support staff vulnerable, a senior administrator told the Higher Education Academy's annual conference.

Delegates heard that academics were having to fend off parents who called relentlessly to demand exam results and attendance records. Some responded aggressively when told they were not entitled to know marks.

Huddersfield University employs a family liaison officer, and it is thought to be the first institution to respond to the issue in this way.

The Rev Paul Wilcock, director of student services at Huddersfield, told a discussion group that universities needed to provide a "listening ear" to frustrated parents. He said: "One parent even phoned an academic asking him to pass on birthday wishes to her son. We wanted to show parents that we were a caring institution, but we still make clear that the contract is between the university and the student, not the parent.

"They were often surprised to hear that we couldn't release some information, however aggressive they became. Parental contacts have become progressively more regular and, in some cases, more aggressive, often leaving academic colleagues feeling vulnerable and unsure how to respond."

Deborah Lee, senior lecturer in sociology at Nottingham Trent University and author of University Students Behaving Badly , said: "Aggressive conduct - between staff, between students, between staff and students, and from parents - has been swept under the carpet.

"It's vital for everyone to be made aware of what constitutes acceptable conduct towards staff, particularly that students are not customers who are always right."

Some lecturers said that aggressive behaviour was a consequence of the UK becoming more consumer oriented. Others believe that because parents are paying more for their children's university experience they are demanding value for money.

Examples of the trend reported to The Times Higher include one parent who contacted his son's university every time a lecture was cancelled and an admissions tutor who received abusive phone calls from parents whose children had not been accepted.

The University and College Union said parents featured heavily among those complaining about the recent action over pay.

Miriam David, the Institute of Education professor whose research highlighted the increasing role of mothers in choosing their children's university, said that market forces and competition had brought a "sea change in parental involvement".

But Frank Furedi, sociology professor at Kent University, said: "Compared with the aggression shown to people in a shop, we have it easy. I ask parents to write a letter to the university, and I explain that the contract is between me and the student."

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