Parental care

A few years ago I recruited a very impressive American to work for my university. As could be expected, he encountered a number of cultural issues in his new place of work, but most of them he was able to deal with appropriately. One that he found particularly difficult, however, was our reluctance to engage in any way the parents of our actual or prospective students, except during university open days. He was used to parents being a key stakeholder group with whom universities would engage on a regular basis, keeping them informed of their daughters’ or son’s progress and of the university’s plans and achievements. We did no such thing. Indeed if parents contacted us about their children, we would routinely tell them, politely I hope, that we could not discuss them with ‘third parties’ – a category that included parents.

I confess that I have felt particularly committed to this approach because, often, parents tended to push their children in all the wrong directions, in particular by pressing them to do courses because of the social standing this would give their offspring (rather than choosing courses to fit the children’s talents and interests).

And yet of course parents are a genuine stakeholder group. Their influence in the choice of university and courses is usually significant, and of course the years that follow often see parents having to make major financial investments in their children, even where there are no tuition fees. The role that parents play is now often recognised and promoted. And to return to America, some universities there now contact parents when students misbehave.

Perhaps we need to think again and to strike a more reasonable balance between the correct recognition of the personal autonomy of students and the legitimate interest of parents (though perhaps less so in the case of mature students). Or perhaps that interest is better expressed in communications between the students and their families, without university involvement? Even if that is so, involving parents in discussions about institutional strategy and priorities cannot be a bad thing.

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5 Comments on “Parental care”

  1. Vince Says:

    I think you’d fall foul of the citizen provision of the Treaties of the EU. At 18 the students are fully accepted as being independent adults, where nothing and no one can dilute. This despite the ugly end run around the Constitution of Ireland and the Citizen provisions in the UK together with the EU Treaties being performed by the social security departments.

  2. Martin Says:

    In Australia as well, I’m absolutely forbidden by the Privacy Act to discuss anything about one of my students with anyone outside the University (including parents) without written permission from the student and preferably even then, the only discussion would be in front of the student.

  3. Jane Kidd Says:

    As a parent who has just sent a slightly naive and hedonistic 17 year old off to University, I can say it is indeed very hard to hand over the reins of power to her, herself. But in a way it’s a terrific relief and more importantly, something of a ‘rite of passage’ in the absence of the more overt and expensive (American?) ones, such as ‘Sweet Sixteen’ or 18th do, a ‘first car’, or even getting engaged or married or whatever, which are such a dreadful burden on everybody in other ways. But as you say, I am not paying fees.

  4. iainmacl Says:

    Here, we have parent sessions in the orientation week (scheduled for the Sunday to recognise work commitments) which are very popular. They cover topics such as the shift from school to university (in terms of teaching/learning), financial matters and advice, services and supports (eg health centre, learning supports, etc). The sessions seem to go down well and there are lots of questions which demonstrate the value that they perceive in having this opportunity to clarify things.

  5. Wendymr Says:

    I’d argue that the phenomenon of ‘helicopter’ and even ‘snowplough’ parents in North America is on its own sufficient justification for sticking with the principle that the student is an adult and it is not appropriate to discuss that adult with any other person without their permission, even aside from all the legal and ethical reasons not to share information with parents.


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