When Liz Hinds' daughter won a place at a top London university she seemed set for a bright future there
NOTHING PREPARED us for this. We thought we were prepared for everything. We'd gone through the worst, the stress of exams, the grades, the results, and, at last, the celebrations. We'd given mountains of normally private information to anyone who might just give her some money; we'd bought enough equipment to make the Beckhams jealous. We'd read all the appropriate brochures and supplements (for her, 'How to avoid a hangover', and for us, 'So your precious baby is off to university'). We were ready.

But we weren't prepared for the message on the answerphone three days after she set off: "I'm coming home." I listened to it when I returned home from the supermarket, where I'd been loitering, watching clean-scrubbed freshers deciding on baked bean brands, and wondering if I should offer to be their mum substitute for the year, adopting a term-time substitute for my absent daughter - and hoping that some kindly soul in the metropolis was doing the same for her.

The message came as a complete surprise. She'd been upset when we left her at the hall of residence, but I could understand that. I'd been none too impressed with the high security (vital, but intimidating) or, worse, the flooding toilets. She had sounded unhappy on the phone, but it was early days. She was a small-town girl in a big city: of course it would take time to settle in. But she didn't appear willing to give it time.

She arrived home that evening. Our house became a storm of emotions: amazement, disappointment, anger, frustration, and even maybe a secret delight from me who'd missed her so much. She said she hated it. We said, how can you hate it in such a short time? She said, well she did. We had a cooling-off the next day. She agreed to give it a real trial, and we took her back. The closer we came to London, the more her face set. Over the next week, she visited the student counsellor, the welfare officer, she even attended a few lectures. At the end of two weeks she did what she had to do - leave.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Our children are supposed to go off to university, have a wonderful time, graduate and find employment. So what went wrong? London had been her first choice. She'd been so keen to go, she'd even said she would resit if she didn't get the high grades she needed. It's an excellent university, joint top with Oxford in her subject. She was so sure of her choice she didn't visit the college beforehand.

The first few days in a completely new environment is inevitably going to be a scary and emotional time. Is it possible, or even appropriate, to make a calm, balanced decision in such circumstances?

Since our daughter left, I've talked to several people. Some said: "It took me a month, term, year to settle down", others: "I never really liked it, but I put up with it." A surprising number said: "I changed course, university" or "I gave up completely." (Brochures tend not to mention drop-outs).

Should we have persuaded her to stay longer? Could she have learned to put up with it? Would the benefit of a good degree from a top university have outweighed the drawback of three miserable years? Those questions are pointless. She was 18, an adult. Ultimately it was her decision. We'd done our best, offered any help she needed to learn to live there, but we couldn't force her to stay.

And three years is too long to waste being unhappy. So she was home for the year. She considered trying to find another university she could join late, but decided that, rather than rushing into something, it would be wiser to start the whole UCAS thing again. So she worked in a care home, pulled pints, sold jewellery, learned the hard way about the benefits system. She also had work experience with the Big Issue (in the office, not on the streets!), and won several writing competitions. She is having two books published, and latterly has been employed by a publisher, with the financial assistance of the Welsh Arts Council. Some of these things will have given her experience relevant to what she hopes will be her future career; the rest have taught her something about life.

Now, ten months later, I suppose I do have some regrets. I still don't know what really went wrong: was it the place, the course, or maybe she just wasn't ready. It was traumatic but not the end of the world. Had we spoiled her? We'll see what September and a new start at a new university - this time closer to home - brings!