Susan Bassnett: Why pushy parents are here to stay

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The Independent Online

Every autumn, as students start the business of selecting a university, stories appear in the media about pushy parents who insist on expressing views about where their offspring should go.

Every autumn, as students start the business of selecting a university, stories appear in the media about pushy parents who insist on expressing views about where their offspring should go. I've read several such pieces lately, including one by An Outraged Spokesman of some university declaring that the end of the world is nigh if parents become involved in choosing where their offspring will study.

Where have these people been living for the last 10 years? I thought everybody could see the growing involvement of parents in all stages in a child's education. I have stood in queues in schools and heard parents telling their offspring what they should and shouldn't take for GCSE. A sample of quotes overheard recently include: "Not French, that's a waste of time"; "music be buggered"; "let's get over to the economics teacher"; and,"I've told you, you're not taking any useless subject like Latin." Teachers confirm that parents play a huge role in determining what their children will study, and that continues at A-level. By the time they are selecting a university, Mum and Dad ( more often Mum, apparently) are major players.

This trend is partly financially driven. On the one hand, there is the growing fear of student debt, regardless of politicians' oleaginous attempts at reassurance, and on the other there is a trend towards attendance at a local university to save on accommodation costs. This shouldn't surprise anyone, since it's the norm in most of Europe. But there is also the significance that parents have come to attach to league tables, and if anyone doubts this, they should listen to some of the radio phone-in programmes that I've been asked to take part in, and hear the views of parents on where they want their children to go. If parents are willing to move house or forgo holidays for years to ensure their children go to decent schools, they aren't about to step aside when it comes to choosing a university. Many universities now run open-day sessions for parents and, at Warwick, we have large-scale welcome meetings for parents when they come to deliver their offspring to the campus for the start of the first academic year. At the end of three years, degree ceremonies are packed with relatives, and sensible vice-chancellors make sure they include a vote of thanks to parents and supporting families.

Increased parental involvement is part of a shift in British culture that has seen the nature of parenting change. Battles to get children into good nurseries are a fact of life, as is the decision of many parents to select a primary school as soon as a child is born. Just look at the designer baby shops, the proliferation of expensive educational toys, the statistics on how many under-sevens have their own television sets and mobile phones.

Cynics may suggest that this is linked to the high divorce rate in the UK, but that does not explain the increased concern shown by millions of parents over children's welfare. Fear of danger is now so great that many children grow up perpetually shepherded about by adults, unable to walk the streets alone or to disappear out to play. Whether real or imaginary, these fears affect the kind of freedom granted to children.

This in turn affects how university education is perceived, for going to university used to be seen as the moment when a child finally broke free from the last remnants of parental control and went off to learn how to stand on his or her own feet. No parent of my generation of students would have agitated for their child to have an en-suite room, nor would any parent have written to the vice-chancellor to complain about the paucity of contact hours. But then few parents would have been sufficiently well-educated themselves, or well-informed enough, to want to share in their children's lives the way parents do today.

Parental involvement is going to increase. Politicians and universities need to wake up and look at what is happening around them.

The writer is professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick