With A-S level and GCSE results just out, a new and bigger anxiety looms for parents of sixth formers: which of the country’s 140-odd universities will your child go for, and which course will they pick out of the thousands on offer? As fees rise and parents cough up to fill the gulf between student loans and student outgoings, it is entirely understandable that parents expect more of a say.
In any case, it’s impossible not to have strong opinions about whether your child lives at home (cheaper, but…), that an economics degree would be more lucrative than media studies, to passionately want them to apply to a particular university, or do a particular course. But it’s best to get over your own prejudices and stop thinking that you know best.
When the son of a friend of mine said he rather fancied a music tech course at a new university up north his mother couldn’t stop herself shrieking, “I’m not forking out for you to go to some former polytechnic!”
She says, “Saul also refused point blank to apply to Cambridge, although the school was encouraging him to try and so did we. In the end he went to Bristol, which he enjoyed, but after the first year he started saying that we should have forced him to apply to Oxbridge. Some chance! We still have the odd row about it, because although we did our best to persuade him we felt the decision was ultimately up to him.”
So is it best to keep your opinions to yourself? Yes and no, says Johnny Rich, founder of www.push.co.uk, the “ruthlessly” independent guide to UK universities. “There are several things parents can do and some things they really shouldn’t. Parents should try hard to avoid basing their advice on prejudice or on personal experience, which will almost certainly be out of date. Universities have changed hugely, even in the past five years.
“One crucial piece of bad advice I often hear from parents is, ‘It doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll have a good time wherever you are.’ The facts and the statistics simply do not bear that out.”
It is best to mug up yourself, and to make a note of key dates such as open days and when the UCAS application form is due so that you can keep an eye on progress without nagging. Nothing beats visiting a university, so it’s a good idea to encourage your child to see a few, even if you can’t go yourself.
If you do tag along, give your children space to explore on their own. Many universities now have separate sessions for parents.
Johnny Rich believes that parents have an important role to play in helping their kids to ask the right questions, to think about things that might not occur to an 18-year-old. Practical matters, such as accommodation, may seem peripheral but they can be crucial. There’s little point going to a top university if you’re lonely and stuck on a campus that doesn’t suit.
So while schools focus on the academic side parents can look at the whole picture: where students live, the wider environment, whether the extra-curricular activities on offer would suit their child’s particular interests. “In the long-term those are the very features of university life that can make a career,” says Rich. “There are plenty of graduates with a 2:1. What makes the difference in getting a job and succeeding in a career is the aptitude that arises out of being a self-starter, which is often matured and brewed in those extra-curricular activities and the social life at university.”
Finally, if your child’s response to your well-intentioned interest simply ratchets up the stress levels, don’t give up – just back off. Rather than giving an opinion, or banging on about the dreaded personal statement, ask open questions about where they’re thinking of living or whether their top choice is a good place for music. Even if they sound like they couldn’t give a monkey’s, the chances are they’ll go away and find out for themselves.