If the prospect of clearing is stressing you out - here's how to cope

If your child is facing the traumatic prospect of going through Clearing, they’ll need your help, writes Peter Brown

Worried? With the A-level results just a few days away, of course you are. In fact, you are probably more worried than your children. Pupils who have just taken AS-levels are about to face the vexed process of choosing a course and a university, honing a personal statement, getting the Ucas bureaucracy right and applying for a loan. They will need your help.

Fast-forward a year, and worries remain beyond the A-level results themselves. Will your child enjoy his or her chosen course? What should they take to university? Should they be insured? Which bank account is best?

Parents have helped their children with these choices for many years. The game-changer this year, however, is the huge rise in tuition fees, from £3,375 to an average of £8,394 this year across all English and Welsh universities and colleges.

Now that so much cash comes not from the state but from the student (albeit usually via a loan) parents want to ensure that their children will get value for money, particularly at a time when full-time jobs are hard to find.

In ever greater numbers, parents are accompanying their children to university open days. They are asking not only about the student loan but also about contact hours, seminar sizes, accommodation, employment rates, internships – and increasingly about work opportunities for their children during study.

"Parents are getting more involved. They are asking lots of questions about how tuition fees work," agrees Phil Bloor, admissions manager at Sheffield Hallam University. "The applicants are probably more interested in the environment and the course, but parents are asking about the outcome – employability – and fees, as well as placement opportunities and transferable skills."

Student applications through Ucas have fallen by 7.7 per cent this year. The subjects that have suffered most are creative arts, design and non-European languages, while physical sciences have seen only a tiny drop and medicine has shown a slight increase. Clearly, courses that lead to jobs are at a premium.

Parents often help with maintenance costs, but the struggling economy is having an effect. "I've seen applicants very keen to move away and live in another city, and parents saying 'We have to think about whether you can afford that'," says Bloor.

A welter of information is available online from books, newspapers, government departments, Ucas and the universities themselves, some of whom have set up Facebook groups for parents of new students.

Nonetheless, it can still be difficult for parents to compare like with like. To overcome this hurdle, from November this year all university websites will have to publish Key Information Sets (KIS) for their courses in a standard format. These will include tuition fees, graduates' average annual salaries six months after leaving their course, accommodation costs and scheduled teaching hours, as well as student satisfaction surveys, the percentage of assessments by written exams and student union information.

This will be a useful first-glance tool, but it will depend largely on aggregated figures, many of which are already available. Those who are really concerned about value for money will need to dig deeper.

The KIS figures, for example, will not placate Cresta Norris. A freelance consultant from west London, she has a daughter already at university and a son aged 17, who is about to start his second year of studying for A-levels. She places no trust, for a start, in student satisfaction surveys. Sensible students who have their eyes on future employment, she says, are unlikely to criticise their own universities.

As a single parent, value for money is a big issue for her. "You're looking at three or four years and you're asking, what's my child going to get out of this?"

Norris helped her son, Rob, apply for prospectuses online and discussed potential courses with him. "He's particularly keen on rowing so we looked at which universities had a good reputation for that."

Like more and more students, Rob has also considered studying abroad. He will be taking the SAT test, standard for US college admissions, before completing his Ucas form next term.

At one "unimpressive" British university open day last year, Norris asked specific questions about teaching hours per week and the number of taught weeks in a term, not counting reading weeks.

"I wanted to know whether questions were allowed in lectures and how many students there were per seminar. But when I asked who would run the seminars – assistants, postgraduates? – they said they hadn't worked that out yet," says Norris.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents higher education staff, makes the point that universities are different from schools. "Higher education is a partnership that only works if students realise that this as much about their participation as it is about the teachers'," she says. "Staff at universities do not see themselves as deliverers of a product."

So does the amount of contact time matter at all? "It depends on the subject. In engineering, I expect students would love to see far less of their teachers. In English, they don't spend huge amounts of time in contact – they are meant to be doing a lot more in terms of independent learning."

Hunt went to Sussex University. "The teaching was fantastic, but more important was that I was immersed in a vibrant, independent life for the first time in my life," she says. Now she worries that younger generations are picking up the idea, perhaps from siblings, that university will be too expensive for them to attend.

Everyone, she believes, should be able to aspire to higher education. But she says that academics are being faced with ever-increasing expectations of what they can deliver, when they have only limited resources.

Laura Thompson, assistant head of recruitment at the University of East Anglia (UEA), has noticed an increased appetite for financial information at the school parents' evenings she goes to.

"We're giving a lot more finance talks. We've also introduced an 'infographic' on our website explaining the finance scheme," explains Thompson. "It's the parents, not the children, who are asking the questions. They are particularly interested in the interest rates being applied. They want to be able to advise their children financially. "But they also want to know what we're spending the money on. We show them the upgraded labs, security provisions and the new study centre," she says. UEA is also providing a student ambassador scheme whereby students can be campus guides, or work in a university office. "They get a lot of skills from that and get paid quite well," says Thompson.

In situations where there are heavy financial burdens and parents are looking for vocational degrees for their children, there are ways to manage tuition fees. Almost a third of all students in England and Wales are part-timers.

Sunderland College, for example, has created a tourism management degree that is taught part-time over four years, at a total cost of around £8,400. Two students have just graduated with first-class honours. The Sunderland students take an higher national certificate for two years, followed by a one-year diploma and finally a one-year degree top-up course. The 30-week courses are mainly held in the evenings.

"Full-time study just isn't an option for all students. Many work to support themselves while they study, or have family commitments," says Nigel Harrett, vice-principal for curriculum and business development at the college.

There are several other pathways to financial help. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds might be eligible for the new National Scholarship Programme, which is going to have £100 million to distribute during 2013.

The brightest pupils have other possibilities. This year the Government's quota system allows universities to take as many AAB-grade students as they like, although that will be relaxed to ABB for courses starting in 2013. As a result, many institutions have been offering scholarships, fee waivers and bursaries to secure the best students. The University of Kent, for example, requires three As at A-level for its new £2,000-a-year scholarship for academic excellence.

Conversely, universities will be fined for taking too many students with lower grades – and the fines have risen in line with the tuition fees. Institutions have been cautious with their offers this year, and the Clearing system will therefore be as busy as ever.

In light of all this change, a parent who is able to help out on the phones this 16 August – A-level results day – could make all the difference to their son or daughter's future.

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