Education: 'Please bring beer and dosh'

So they've finally flown the nest. But be warned - it may be the last you hear from them for months
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The Independent Online
It is one of the most touching scenes of the British autumn. tableau: outside is the family car, piled high with teenage belongings; while inside, anxious parents climb the stairs to new student's accommodation ("This looks nice, dear, where are you going to put all those books?")

To be honest, the first few weeks are bliss: no more loud music seemingly composed for pneumatic drill and torture chamber; easy access to the bathroom; and no stiff whiskys before opening the phone bill.

Then the rot sets in and you need the Ten Commandments of Student-Parent Communication (been there, done it, but there is no T-shirt, only a hair shirt).

Rule one: Students do not write letters. I mention this because there are some parents who believe that a four-page missive will come through the front door every week full of chatty news and discussion about lectures attended, interspersed with debates on the meaning of life.

Letters for students are a dead form of communication (rather like telegrams). The only educational establishment that has so far succeeded in getting its inmates to write regularly was my prep school where it was a punishable offence not to write home once a week (all letters were censored; the excuse given was a check of the spelling, rather than of the content).

Rule two: Try to get your son or daughter into a hall of residence for the first year. This will reduce some, but not all, of your anxieties - heat, light, cooking, a bed and a regular address. They will also probably meet a whole lot of new friends.

Rule three: The Sixties and Seventies are over, man... Don't ever try to be an elder brother or sister. I now teach a course for the Open University on the Sixties (little did I think that when I purchased a Kinks LP all those years ago that it would one day be part of a university assignment). When I was last in Dublin, there was a museum exhibition on Jimi Hendrix (also another part of the same assignment). Status Quo are now on Radio Two. Even the Eighties are part of the nostalgia scene. There were no such things as microwaves or student loans then.

Rule four: Don't make pathetic attempts to keep up with the trends. No university student will admit to liking chart music anyway, and you are almost certain to put your foot in it ("Have Adam and the Ants made any records recently?").

Rule five: Try to ignore almost everything that happens in the first term, especially freshers' week. My youngest son, always the rebel and sporting a ring through his eyebrow even before arriving, amazed us all by joining the cadet force ("I thought it would be a bit of a laugh and you do get paid"). He also joined the paint ball club. And yes, all those stories about the Rugby Club initiation ceremonies are probably true.

Freshers' week is a necessary rite of passage in which nearly everybody joins at least two totally useless societies. In any case, the whole thing is something of a farce; the hunt saboteurs society is always put next to the field sports society. The student union equal opportunities rep bans the cadet force on the grounds that the Ministry of Defence discriminates against gays. In so doing, they gain more recruits and publicity.

Rule six: Try to remember your son or daughter's new friends. They are going to be around for a long time, plus or minus the odd teenage fall- out or ring-in. This is going to be difficult, as you are not likely to meet them or, at best, very briefly. Get used to vague introductions to or mentions of Dave, Scruggs ("a real laugh"), Marie, one-eyed Frank and Jim the Hat. It might even be worth considering having the 18th or 21st birthday party at the parental home, so that you could meet most of them. Actually, on second thoughts, forget I said that.

Rule seven: Learn to understand Student Speak. Almost anything not approved of by student or mates is "sad" or "pants". "It would be nice to come home for the weekend" equals "I haven't done any washing for the last six weeks". "Please bring beer, pasta and missing bit for the CD" equals "Dosh also urgently needed". As does any missive beginning "I was wondering if you..."

Rule eight: Try to get your son or daughter some domestic skills before going to university. It is not just debs and new Delia Smith readers these days that can't boil an egg, and they can't live on takeaways the whole time, although they will try.

Rule nine: Some things do not change. I had a friend who used to throw his sock against the wall, first thing in the morning. If it stuck, it was time to change it. The towel on the banisters is traditionally a sign that the flat's only double bed is being used. My first efforts at roasting a chicken were not successful as I left in the plastic bag with the giblets and tried heating the plates (polythene). "When I first saw his flat, I just wanted to cry," commented one mother.

Rule ten: The following may help a little: phonecards - they may have a little cash left to phone you; e-mails - for some reason all e-mails from parents tend to get lost, while ones from attractive members of the opposite sex always get through; stamped addressed envelopes - can work but often become requests for money, beer, pasta and the missing bit from the CD; tick sheet - containing very basic information (eg I am well/unwell or I am alive/dead). Worked at the front during the First World War and these are desperate times.

Offers of free meals and drinks - this is known as a bribe and usually works a treat.

And at the end, you can attend the graduation ceremony, if anybody tells you about it before it happens.