Page last updated at 13:30 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 14:30 UK

Pushy parents can act as agents

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Helicopter parent and luxury car
The "helicopter parent" expects to stay in control of their student children

So many parents have been chasing university places for their children that the admissions system is now letting parents act as their agents.

Students entering university this autumn will be the first whose admissions decisions and negotiations can be handled by their parents.

In the past, the admissions service had to deal directly with applicants.

Parents have also been expecting to sit in on their children's university interviews, says academic Frank Furedi.

Universities are facing the growing phenomenon of "helicopter parents" - the over-involved parents who want to continue interfering in the lives of their children at university.

'Infantilism'

The university admissions service, Ucas, says that in response to the number of calls from parents that it has decided to allow parents to act as their children's representatives in handling applications.

As such, young people making applications this year have been allowed to nominate a proxy to speak for them and make decisions.

"This is usually because the parent feels they haven't got all the information they need from their son or daughter and so phone back to double check and clarify points," says a Ucas spokesman.

About one in 10 students this year are estimated to have used this option of nominating their parents to make calls on their behalf.

Frank Furedi, social commentator and professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says that controlling parents are "destroying the distinction between school and higher education".

"All universities now have to take the parent factor into account. On university open days you can see more parents attending than children," says Professor Furedi.

He says there have been cases of parents who arrive expecting to attend their children's university interviews.

Professor Furedi says that he tells parents that they have to leave, but there are other academics who "accept that this will be a family discussion".

"There is a powerful sense of infantilism, where parents can't let go."

Consumerism

This extends to universities having to handle complaints from parents over grades awarded to students, he says, and a constant over-involvement during term time.

"We have to remind parents that there is a professional relationship between academics and students," he says.

Professor Furedi expects this parental pressure to grow - with the risk of turning universities into "schools for biologically mature children".

He warns that it will follow the trend in the United States for universities to pitch their marketing at parents rather than students.

Rob Evans, head of admissions at Sussex University, says that universities are seeing an increasing amount of involvement from parents when students are making applications.

He links it to the increased cost of university and also to a more over-protective form of parenting. Safety fears mean that children can grow up with less independence, such as not being allowed to walk to school, and this attitude filters through to when young people apply to university.

The high-pressure parent is a reflection of consumerist values hitting higher education, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School.

"These parents are paying more, so they think they can demand more," says Professor Cooper. Parents want to retain control of their "psychological and financial investment in their children".

Parents are also using their children as surrogates for their own ambitions, he says, getting them to chase the success that they might feel eluded them in their own careers.

"Parents derive status from their children's success," says Professor Cooper.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This has been coming for some time. When I began teaching in Higher Education I was amazed at the number of prospective students who turned up with their parents. Now I expect it - at the open day I was at on Saturday only two students out of 60 turned up on their own. I like my students and think most of them are pleasant, helpful and intelligent individuals - but their life skills are often appallingly underdeveloped and this sort of thing is going to make it much worse. And yes, I am a parent with a child going to university in four weeks
Jay R, York

Ridiculous. I agree entirely with Professor Cooper's comments. The steady subsumption of education to the onslaught of capital accumulation is turning education into a torrid marketplace. Parents need to think again, to be responsible and encourage their children to assert their own responsibility in turn. Bring back education for education's sake.
Joe G, Oxford

Things aren't always what they appear. In the case of my step-daughter, the only way we could find out what course she was on, what her accommodation arrangements were etc was by dealing directly with the University. And why? Because she refused to discuss any of the details with her mother at all - she simply expected a blank cheque to be signed to cover her costs - accommodation, living expenses, etc whilst totally cutting her Mother and I out of everything else - including her results. I agree that there are over-controlling parents out there and that this should be discouraged - but parents (even, dare I say it, step-parents) should have some rights.
(please withhold my name if published), Warrington

As someone working in a central administration department of a university, having just dealt with aggressive, pushy and downright rude parents - this is the last thing administrators need! Parents need to learn to let go of their children wehen they go to university, it's not just education they receive but life education. I was lucky enough to have my parents leave me to it, even though they remortgaged their house to put me through higher education. Parents don't always know the full picture regarding Ucas regulations and other correspondence institutions have had with their offspring, something I see week in week out when I have an angry and agressive parent on the phone until the penny drops their child has not been completely straight with them (classic example telling them one grade at A Level results time when they got one much lower). The parents aren't going to do the course, write the essays, sit the exams or get the letters after their names so leave the kids to get the place in the first place, before they try to get the degree.
Dan, London

I can't think of anything worse than my parents sitting in on an interview. I understand parents wanting the best for their kids but if they are to survive uni they should be able to do the interview themselves.
Susan, Manchester

Some years ago we had a student whose father not only attended all stages of the selection process, but also attempted to attend lectures in October so that his son "wouldn't be bullied".
Chris, London

When I was doing my degree I wouldn't dream of asking my parents to phone my university on my behalf about anything. At the age of 18, I was an adult and had to make adult decisions and live with them.

Now as a university administrator I'm regular inundated with parents calling in making all sorts of excuses for their offspring (my darling doesn't feel well..) or complaining that its the fault of staff (not the fact they never attended classes / were too busy getting wasted) that their child failed for the 5th time in a row.

The best example I've experience of 'helicopter parents' was when a parent called my office asking me to walk down the hall and collect their little (20 year old) girl who couldn't find my office door.

Part of the admissions process should include a parent test whereby if a student is unable to act / think for themselves, they should not be admitted to university.
C, Lancashire

This will be yet another thing that helps privileged children to gain an advantage over those with less capable parents. Universities should be favouring the more capable applicants, this seems to be going the other way. My parents never had a clue, and it was hard enough to get into college and then university as it was on my own, with my parents knowing very little about it (and my so called school careers advisor telling me to get real and join a YTS scheme). Especially memorable was time I spent shoveling 5p's into a red telephone box trying to secure a university place (my parents didn't have a phone and I'd hardly ever used one)! Keep parents out, minimise course work (which is mostly done by parents), and increase the emphasis on exams. This is the way to once again reduce the gap between rich and poor. Let's face it, in a university interview the person with educated parents is pretty much always going to hold a better conversation than one who has barely literate parents, that we can't change.
Andy, Oxford

Sometimes Universities have only themselves to blame. My daughter was threatened with being thrown off her course, or perhaps it was just to scare her into working harder. She didn't know and there didn't seem to be anything to decide her fate other than the mood of the academic making the decision on the day. I don't know if the University understood the stress this caused or just didn't care but I'm pleased she turned to her parents to help clarify the position. I didn't want any unfair treatment for her just to find out where she stood, make sure she was being treated fairly and knew all the options available - things her University should have given her anyway. As for going to interviews I assumed I wouldn't be welcome but with so many courses and institutions some interviews will be the University selling itself to the candidate rather than the other way round.
Wernside, Leeds

As a parent of a son who is going through the process I know that there's a fine line we parents need to tread. Yes there are things that we want or need to know. However if we do everything for our teenagers how on earth are they going to learn to stand on their own two feet? I try not to be an overbearing parent, I'm sure my son would agree with me that I don't always win on that one, but there has to be some sort of communication especially if parents are footing the bill! You have to accept that your 18 year old won't want you following them around and fighting thier battles for them. However you can be interested as to how things went, support their decisions and be there to help them IF and when they need it. If you must go with them to an interview take the opportunity to be a tourist or take in some retail therapy.
Heather Cadoux, Middlesex

I am lucky that my parents from GCSEs onwards were willing to let me, and my sister and brother get on with it. Not that they didn't help they drove us to any universities we wanted to visit, no matter how far away they were, but let us form our own ideas. I still am at university and the 'helicopter-parents' we do encounter are generally self made and not a result of inept students. Sadly what they don't seem to realise as in the case of my flat mate (whose mother came up once a week to sort his socks out and do his shopping) is that if they don't let go they will be forced to, and their adult relationships with their children will suffer (my flatmate has not spoken to his mother in 5 months). Whereas allowed support from parents but not control will mean the children will hopefully like their parents enough to care for them when the situation requires
Alice E, London

There are two issues here. On the one hand it is clearly wrong for parents to try to control their children as they grow up and go to university, and wrong to want to sit in on interviews.

On the other hand, parents are now having to spend many thousands of pounds paying for university education for their children. They need to have some sort of involvement to make sure that their hard-earned money will not be simply thrown away on a course that is underperforming, or on a course that their children will not complete. Not everyone can afford to write a blank cheque and cross their fingers on the outcome.
James, UK

As a (very) mature would be student I attended an interview fior a university place early this year. In the waiting area I was pleasently suprised to see that about 25% of those present were of about my age. The first name was called for interview and a young lady of about 19 got up accompanied by the older man sat next to her. The penny then dropped; the older people in the room, other than myself were, without exception, parents who had come along with their offspring.

I was interviewed late in the running order and so could see that in in all but one case the parent went out of the room to the interview with the young person.

If these young people can't be trusted by their parents to attend an interview by themselves how are they ever going to survive in the real world?

I did get accepted and am now looking forward with interest to see how if the parents will attend the lectures. If they do I hope they're charged the full student fees that I'm being charged!
Mick McTiernan, London

I think that young people should gain independence but as a parent of an eighteen year old I can appreciate wanting to be as involved as possible in the important decisions they make. As parents are expected to be financially responsible for their student children, it is reasonable to expect some feedback and involvement. Only when young people become financially independent through a non-means tested grant system for higher education will universities be able to expect this from their students.
helena, halesowen

Isn't this just a natural progression of the infantilism created by tuition fees? The way students have to finance their univerisity education since the introduction of tuition fees forces them to become financially reliable on their parents, especially if they are inelligable for a grant. The maximum loan for many is just over 3000, when the cost of accomadation alone is nearer 4000. The whole financial application process for students is based around the circumstances of their parents, so surely it is no surprise that decisions are being made by them
Joe S, London

I can understand parents coming with their children to open days and helping them makes choices - after all, not only is university a big choice, but many are still at school at the time and for many a lift with their parents may be the easiest way of getting to the university.

The idea that parents can be present at interviews and so forth seems to go a bit far, however. As for those that say they can't get information from their children - the answer is not to hand over a blank cheque. Make it plain that your financial support is conditional upon your involvement.
Ben Saunders, Oxford

Having just completed a degree (as a mature student), I saw a marked difference among students who had parents trailing after them and those who did not. The ones with helicopter parents were the most 'lost' about what to do with their lives upon finishing university. It was also a way to make absolutely certain that lecturers and admin staff had no respect for the student - why listen to what they have to say when they don't even have control over their own lives?
Jennifer, East Yorkshire

My parents have had very little input in my education since I finished my GCSEs. Neither were available to tour university open days with me and the first time they visited me in the city where I attended university was at my graduation ceremony last month. I can't imagine what kind of people are going to be produced by these 'helicopter parents' and I am terrified that they are roughly my generation and I may have to deal with them in a work environment when I am older: this over attention cannot end well! It gives the children no chance whatsoever to grow into young adults. Parents need to learn to keep their noses out and let their children make their own mistakes!
Catherine Bavali, Brighton

You go to university as an 18 year old adult. Your parents have no place acting as an 'agent'. If I were an admissions tutor, I would seriously mark down any 18 year who appeared incapable of handling their admission themselves.
Rick, Brighton

This is a generation that is soon going to be charged with the responsibility of all kinds of vital decisions. We are stuffed.
Ryan, Glasgow

Where will the madness end? Will these parents expect to attend their offsprings' job interviews, negotiate salaries, hold their hand to work? Sooner or later parents have to let go and let their children make their own way in life. When I went to university it was a bit bewildering at first, but that's part of the transition from boy to man.
Johnny B, UK

I have two independent boys 23 and 20, who manage all their affairs very competently alone, including entering university; as a single parent it was key to teach self reliance and autonomy, plus they watched me completing a law degree when they were growing up so they knew how much work was involved and they say this helped their own transition into adulthood and university. Whereas, my partner who is almost 40 still has over involved parents; his mother acts as his agent in many matters; including a recent application to higher education. I love my partner, but I fear he will never experience the happiness that my boys attain from the ability to captain their own ship. My partner will forever be at the mercy of his parents and will only experience freedom when they die. I think the greatest gift a parent can bestow is understanding when and how to let go of the power a parent has, a process that starts I guess at birth, love of course can carry on forever.
k!erry , salisbury

I think an important point has been missed here, in that some of these overbearing parents interfere very much against their child's will. The high fees already give pushy parents leverage to dictate their child's choices, to allow them to actually cut their child out entirely, and arrange things without them is appalling. I had to work very hard (and accumulate a large amount of debt) to escape a controlling parent. If there had been a "nominate a proxy to make all arrangements on your behalf" option when I applied, I'd no doubt have been forced to tick it, and I'd probably just have given up on university.
T, UK

There is a fine line here - I came with my son to the university tour and interview - as his driver - I wanted to make sure that he got the best possible chance and could make the best possible decision and the visit as far as possible was stress free. I certainly would n't have been in on the interview - its going to add to the stress, it would n't look good and there would have been nothing I could do to help. By seeing the place with him I could help him with his decision by being able to discuss it afterwards. He was looking to me for advice and being his dad, knowing him and having seen the universities I was glad to able to help him. One of the things that struck me was that universities have changed since I went they are much more market driven businesses than when I went and I feel this along with the fact that it is a lot of money for parents and student alike goes some way to making things more consumerist. Finally young people are much busier now they are often wo! rking or travelling and it is sometimes useful to have someone you trust to act as your agent especially for something that is so critical.
paddy, Aberdeen

Consumerism and helicopter parenting go hand in hand. It happened in the US years ago. And now it's happening in the UK. Surprise, surprise!

Eliminate consumerism/fees for university study, and you'll get rid of the destructive helicopter parenting phenomenon.

Very simple.
Howard Fredrics, Hampton Wick, UK

This is so common at my university in the US. My roommate freshman year had very overbearing parents who would call her academic advisor and demand to know why she had gotten a certain grade in a course or to argue with them over how they had marked one of her papers. They'd even give my roommate instructions as to which classes to register for and which professors to study with. They certainly had "plans" for her into which her opinion was never taken into account. Later I worked as staff at this same university and could only stifle laughter as parents would come in, their mute offspring lagging behind, and insist that they had the right to their child's (and I call them children because I know of no adults who would just tag along as their parents berated faculty on their behalf) class schedules, exam results, etc. We even had parents who would call up the dorm and demand that we check and make sure their child was asleep on time. No matter how many times we told them that we had absolutely no right, as staff, to enter their rooms and report on them, the parents would scream and insist that we do so. We figured out very quickly that screening their calls was the only way to keep our sanity.
Melissa, Washington, D.C.

so 18-year-olds are mature enough to vote, marry without parental consent, fight in the armed services, but NOT old enough to go to University interviews on their ickle owns? It's such parents that need treatment in my opinion.
anna, bournemouth

In my experience as a senior lecturer in HE some parents are helpful and only have genuine concerns for their offspring. However, those who are likely to interfer do so from the standpoint of thinking that they know best for their child and better than the university in the delivery of the course and support which should be given! They are a nightmare - I had one mature student aged over thirty whose mother accompanied him to a discussion about his academic progress, another who stormed into a meeting uninvited and unannounced, swore at those in the room and stormed out again! Yet another who wrote to half the cabinet and tony Blair in support of her poorly perfoming and deluded child. They are blinkered, have absolutely no insight and often, few manners.
Jack, Manchester, UK

At the university where I used to work, pushy parents would sometimes phone up my colleagues to ask about their son or daughter's progress. The response was that, under the data protection act, the university could not provide information about students to third parties. The universities should refuse to deal with parents unless the student signs a form to allow it - then they can find out whether the student really wants the parents to be involved.
Jonathan, Didcot, UK

Its not just university interviews, I've been at several work/apprenticeship interviews where the parents have been there too. I have to have the ability to get there on my own so why can't they? When applying to university I went to all the open days and interviews under my own steam. I'm glad I did. I also was funding my university life myself, so I didn't want my parents to have the right to know everything. Are the universities going to call the parents when their offspring doesn't turn up to lectures?
Alison, Coventry, England

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SEE ALSO
The curse of the meddling parent
04 Jan 08 |  Education
Parents meddling in student life
09 Aug 06 |  Education

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