Clearing 2015: Student living is as important as studying

Prepare your child for the basics of cooking, shopping and caring for themselves, and they'll be in far better shape to absorb some knowledge. Helena Pozniak explains how you can help them on their way

Helena Pozniak
Tuesday 11 August 2015 17:00

"I cried non-stop for two and a half hours on the drive home," says Jess about waving off her first child to Newcastle University. He's now 25, and Jess has since recovered. "I did all the 'mum type' things - sniffing his pillow, not changing his bedding. It felt like bereavement. Then when my daughter left two years later, I felt it would be a big eye opener. Would my husband and I still get on?" Happily, they did and her life - after a few more tears - has moved on.

Parents have mixed feelings at a student child's departure - he or she is having all the fun while you are left tidying the house. "I was totally excited for them but also slightly jealous remembering the fantastic times I had at uni and knowing it was never going to happen to me again," says Annie from Bedford, whose two children have both departed in the last three years.

Mercifully for parents and students, empty nest syndrome is usually short lived. "Best thing that happened," says Jane, from west London, who saw off her second child to Leeds last year. "I've got my life and my husband back."

Aside from preparing to grieve or celebrate, parents have an important job to do before the summer is out. Their child has to arrive at university able to pick up dirty socks, cook a meal, master a washing machine - campuses are filled with students wearing discoloured and shrunken clothes - maintain personal hygiene, balance a budget, not to mention tackle an intellectual workload. And often it's lack of practical skills that trip them up.

One tutor remembers the start of term: "Here I was delivering a course and all students wanted to know was where to shop and how to cook. They looked shell-shocked."

Those who've had a year out, or held down a holiday job tend to be more grounded, says Jane Phelps, former head of higher education at Rugby School and now director of external relations at the private New College of the Humanities (NCH). More students quit university because they can't cope with independent living rather than the academic work, she says. "That said, I don't think we should be turning out 45 year old students - they should still have fun and learn from ups and downs."

If you can teach your child to make a few simple dishes - and there are plenty of books and dedicated apps - you're halfway there, say university welfare staff.

In reality, this will be the last thing on most freshers' minds, says Cameron Sutherland, who's just finished his second year at the University of the West of England (UWE). "My mother had tried to teach me to cook but it all went over my head. I was more concerned about what I was going to wear than eat. Making friends was my biggest concern." Only when he'd had one pot noodle too many did he apply himself to catering. "What I really wished I'd known," he says, "is just how friendly people would be in Freshers' week. Everyone is open, ready to bond - it just isn't a worry. Don't stress about what you need to bring."

While it's the parents' job to produce rounded adults, this can't be done in the last few weeks. It's probably a bit too late to give a safe sex or the 'evils-of-drink-and-drugs' talk and they probably wouldn't listen anyway. "Parents will play many roles, the most important to give their child confidence and resilience to deal with new situations, to interact with a wide variety of people and engage with new opportunities," says Liz Dunne, head of student engagement and skills at the University of Exeter. She's lead adviser to a collaboration of universities who've produced a new online course Academic success: skills for learning, skills for life ( to help students make the change from sixth form to university. It's being offered by some UK universities before terms starts.

Privately some university tutors despair at how little first year students apply themselves. And privacy laws prevent parents from checking whether their children are actually attending lectures or delivering assignments. "There's actually a good reason for this," says Gareth Hughes, a project worker for student services at the University of Derby - staff want the student to learn to manage a situation and take control.

"If you're really concerned about their immediate safety it may make sense to make someone at their university - student services or welfare - aware."

Students will find it easier if they've engaged with the university before term starts, says Dr Eleanor Loughlin, student study skills coordinator at the University of Durham. "Parents can play an important role in encouraging them to get involved in any pre-arrival activities such as visits, discussion boards or online inductions." Official social media groups can be good for both parents and students as an easy way to ask questions and meet others.

"This may sound boring but see if you can find out your reading lists and get a head start over the summer - you'll thank yourself in the long run," says Stephanie Little, president of Leeds Trinity Students' Union.

Managing your child's expectations can spare them feelings of doubt down the line. "Very often, students rehearse a fixed vision of how university will be, and when that isn't realised they can panic and feel alienated," says Hughes. Often students are beset by 'shoulds' - "I shouldn't be feeling like this", or "I should be doing better". So what can you do to help? "Tell them beforehand these ups and downs are normal, encourage them to do things they enjoy early on in term time, stay active and engage as much as possible," he says. It helps to work out in advance how often you'll contact them, when you'll visit and how you'll spend holidays, birthdays and so on.

Once there, adapting to unstructured hours can throw a student used to a tight schedule. "One mistake is to assume that un-timetabled time is free time," says Loughlin. Taking responsibility for study early on will save much grief down the line. Simple scheduling apps such as Google calendar can help organise the chaotic early weeks. "It's impossible to tell a student not to spend too much time socialising," says Robert Kelsey, author of Get Things Done and What's Stopping You. He advises learning simple time management - how to prioritise the important over the urgent for instance.

While mental preparation might be tricky, sorting what to take is more straightforward. Mobiles, laptops and so on go without saying "don't forget your chargers," says Claire Slater-Mamlouk, head of student support at Keele University. As well as essentials such as bedding, pack small speakers, headphones and earplugs in case of noisy flatmates, as well as flip flops for communal bathrooms, and medicines to combat freshers' flu. Like many universities, Keele has a network of students who work to help out newbies. "Bring some snacks and goodies to share with flatmates - that's always a great icebreaker."

As for parents, once the dust has settled, resist the urge to redecorate or change the house, at least during the first term. "For a while, university will feel very transient for many students," advises the University of Hull. "If you make big changes they may suddenly feel as though nowhere is stable and nowhere is home."

When you welcome them home for the holidays, brace yourselves; you'll be adapting to having an adult back in the home on slightly unfamiliar terms. "Back to the washing machine on twice a day," says Annie, "the fridge being emptied and the clutter, the streams of friends coming round. But it's great to have them home again."

Case study: Ella Mitchell, 18, plans to go to university in September to study psychology. She lives in Winchester

"I think I'll miss living in an actual house, and things not being familiar, but I guess I'll get used to that. I'm a bit worried I will get homesick but everyone is in the same position. And at home, I think it will be as weird for my siblings as it will be for me. My friends and I are all wondering how we'll look after ourselves when we move out. I've done a bit of cooking and washing recently and I clean my own room; I think I'll be alright. I'm going to teach sailing this summer to earn as much money as I can before going to uni."

Lindy Mitchell (mother)

"Ella's the oldest of four so she's used to responsibility. She's paid for a holiday herself from her wages from a Saturday job - it makes you really proud. You do worry they'll blow their loan all in one go so we've tried to make her financially aware. Last year she went on holiday with friends - I think that starts to prepare you for living on a budget. Now and then she'll go and shop for and cook a meal for the family. Over the last two years she's become aware of eating healthily. I think she's after my juicer. I know she won't ring every night at uni - I'll have to get over that. I'm sure she'll like coming home, where it's nice and comfy and you get your food cooked."

Case study: Liam McMullan has finished his first year of a BA in music, theatre and entertainment management at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Lipa).

Liam McMullan has finished his first year of a BA in music, theatre and entertainment management at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Lipa).

"I had a gap year and went to Australia to work on a ranch. It wasn't as great as it sounds, but it did make me independent. Before I came here, I sat down with my mum and we looked at where would be best to live and worked out a budget. Both my parents have been very supportive. I would be lying if I said I was practical - I had the bare minimum of cooking and washing skills. Every day here I've learned something new - mostly from friends who can cook. My mum taught me bits - ironing is quite a task. I'm so glad I brought my guitar; I wouldn't be without it - it helps me to chill out."

Catherine McMullan (mother)

"I was more worried when Liam went to Australia; it was difficult to let him go. He's an only child and we speak on the phone more than once a day. I visited after six weeks, and I don't want to overstay my welcome. Money has probably been my biggest worry. You need to plan - it's a costly business to set them up with what they need; we probably spent £600-£700 on the day he moved over. I tried to educate him to budget over the year. Words can't describe how proud I am of him. He's settled in so well and successfully."

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