Pushy parents

Doting mothers and fathers are demanding more say in their offspring's life at university - after all, they're paying for it. By Stephen Pritchard
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When Dr Frank Ferudi called the next student in for his admissions interview to discuss a place on Kent University's sociology degree the applicant, a young man in his late teens, was accompanied by his mum.

"It became clear, after a couple of minutes, that the parent had taken over," Dr Ferudi recalls. "I tried to get the applicant to talk, but the parent kept dominating the interview. In the end, I asked her to leave. I said it was more appropriate to get a measure of the student's ability on a one to one basis. I felt she made it impossible to find out about the student. I would ask a question, and she would answer."

Dr Ferudi, who is researching the relationship between parents and their student children, believes his experience is now commonplace. As childhood and dependence on parents last longer and longer, the parent who took the primary child by hand to the school gate and nursed the teenager through all that homework is not about to let go - particularly now he or she has to spend so much money on the university experience for their offspring.

Dr Ferudi says :"Virtually every academic I know who does interviews has experienced this. I started teaching in 1975. From 1975 to 1990, I only encountered a parent if the student died or was very ill, and that was at my initiation. In the last couple of years, it has become a more regular pattern." Parents write to him, complaining about grades and act as advocates for their children, he says.

There have always been parents who get heavily involved in their children's lives. Perhaps the best known is Harry Lawrence, father of Ruth Lawrence, the brilliant mathematician who went to Oxford and graduated with a First, aged 13. As a minor, there were sound arguments for Ruth to be accompanied by Harry, who moved with her to university. Harry has continued to accompany Ruth, well into her adult life.

But the new trend is not about the occasional parent who finds it hard to stop being in control, it is about greater numbers of middle-class parents, who are determined to be "there" for their children, in some cases physically there, in other cases arguing with a tutor about grades from the other end of a telephone. Perhaps emboldened by the closer relationships encouraged by schools, these parents are not content to motor the contents of their child's bedroom to and from the hall of residence a few times and then turn up with the camera on graduation day - they are stakeholders with attitude.

In one sense, the closer relationships between parents and universities are being fostered by institutions, too. Marketing efforts are addressed as much at parents as at applicants, and a number of institutions have gone to considerable lengths to make parents feel they are welcome, especially at open days. The danger is that, in inviting them in, the marketing people have made it all the more difficult for parents to let go and allow their sons and daughters to make their own decisions - and mistakes.

For university lecturers, drawing the line between a parent's genuine concerns and inappropriate meddling is becoming a much harder task. Dr Alan Pearson spent 16 years as departmental admissions officer for biological sciences at Durham University and is now admissions tutor at his college, Hilde and Bede. "It worries me when parents turn up to interview," he says. "It is happening more than it used to. It can be disconcerting. If a child is very nervous, it can calm them down. But we want to see the applicants themselves."

Fewer universities now have formal interviews, but often organise brief meetings or group discussions for applicants during the open day. The relative informality makes it harder for parents, and applicants, to know their roles. "I had a case when a parent was nudging the child to answer questions at an open day," says Dr Pearson. "That's not good. They should stand back at the critical moment."

The story is similar at Leeds University. "Those departments that do hold interviews for prospective applicants find that increasingly parents are attending, and in some cases dominating the interview," says Chrissie Tunney, admissions officer in the school of geography.

Some parents continue to dominate, even after the interview. Dr David Robertson is dean of St Hugh's College, Oxford, Ruth Lawrence's old college. "Two years ago we had a girl who was rejected," he says. "I received a letter of complaint from her father. I wrote back, explaining what had happened - she had done badly in the written test. Nearly a year later, I got another letter saying his second daughter was coming up for interview, and asking for information that would help her in the test."

Universities are now opening their doors to next year's candidates. It is common for universities to arrange talks, guided tours and videos specifically for parents. As little as five years ago, this was the exception.

Reading is one university with a package of measures aimed directly at parents: it even produces a handbook, The Perplexed Parent's Guide to Higher Education, with advice for worried mums and dads. Reading stresses that it wants applicants to make up their own minds about where to study, but it accepts that parents will take an interest. "There are a lot of applicants who bring their parents to open days, and a lot of parents who want to come. We want them to know what is going on," explains schools and colleges liaison officer, Dorothy Buss. "We want them to understand the decision to come to university, but also make them understand that they need to support their children before, during, and after a degree." Ms Buss's responsibilities end when an applicant gains a place at her university. That, too, is the point where parents might be expected to take a less active role, and let their sons or daughters find their own way. Again, lecturers report that is not always the case. From places in halls to exam results, parents are becoming more active on their offspring's behalf.

Phil Clarkson, senior assistant registrar at Liverpool University, handles examinations and appeals, and is taking more and more calls from worried parents. "Often, parents will conduct an appeal against exam results on the student's behalf.

"Parents pay more now," he says. "They have a vested interest in making sure that anything that happens, happens in a proper manner. Anything they can complain about, they will." But for parents, deciding whether to intervene can be agonising. Lynne Boundy, editor of the book It's Quite an Education: Supporting your Son or Daughter through University, recalls her own experience.

Her son Simon rang, saying he was going into hospital for treatment to an abscess on his throat. The next day, he was sitting the exam that determined his admission to the honours course. "I thought that if I spoke to his tutor, he would make some allowances," she says. She thought long and hard, before letting her son deal with the problem himself. "I didn't call because he would have hated it," Mrs Boundy points out. "But I told him that he must contact his tutor." In the end, the exam went well, but she is unsure how she would have reacted had he failed.

Academics worry about the educational consequences of parents fighting their children's battles for them. Dr Ferudi says: "It undermines the autonomy and the experience of the student. Part of going to university is learning vital independence. I don't mind if parents want to protect their investment. I am concerned if they don't develop the experience of being on their own"n

`It's Quite an Education: Supporting your Son or Daughter through University' (Unit for Innovation in Higher Education, Lonsdale College, Lancaster University, LA1 4YN; pounds 7.95).

Administrators report a rise in calls about domestic matters. Some of the students welcome it, others do not.

Anthony Noun, a second-year undergraduate reading politics and modern history at Manchester University, turned to his parents for help. He was unhappy with his hall of residence but found his requests for a move thwarted by the administration.

"It's very difficult to move halls," he says. "My mum phoned up the accommodation office and had a huge shout. She said I would leave the university unless I moved. She did help: I moved in."

In the case of a first-year undergraduate, intervention was clearly not in her interest. Manchester University Union welfare officer, Madie Bliss, says: "The student let her parents fill out the application forms for halls," Ms Bliss says. "They decided she was going to go into a single sex hall. She feels she has a right to a room in a mixed hall." The student cannot move halls until someone is found to take her place, but few women want to move in to a hall described as "a nunnery". The undergraduate now has to live with a choice her parents made, based on their sense of moral valuesn