Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Universities: Schools for biologically mature children?

In July 2005 Frank Furedi reminisced in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

In 1997, I completed my book The Culture of Fear. Most of the comments my copy editor made about the manuscript were routine questions about grammar, incoherent formulations and inconsistencies. But one of the comments stood out as an explicit challenge to the authenticity of the text. The contentious passage informed the reader of a relatively new development - the arrival of parents on campus. To illustrate the changing character of university life, I pointed to what was then a relatively novel phenomenon: students arriving on campus for their interviews, accompanied by their parents. "This cannot be true," exclaimed my editor.

At first, I was taken aback by her implicit challenge to my integrity. But after we had discussed this issue, I was able to understand where she was coming from. As someone who was an undergraduate in the 1970s, she could not reconcile her experience of a parent-free university with the subsequent changes.

He returned to the same theme today in a BBC report on parents chasing university places through the clearing system on behalf of their children:

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."

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".

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on just what a change in this. When I went to university in 1978 - and even during the interviews over the year before that - the whole point of the exercise was to strike out on your own and escape the influence of parents and schools. The change that has taken place makes me deeply sceptical when I am informed that young people grow up much faster these days.

James Graham thinks the process happened so long ago that it is hardly worthy of comment. But then he is younger than me.

Incidentally, I am not convinced by James's view that the answer to everything is to change the system so that university applications take place after people know their A level results. This seems to carry the assumption that A level grades are to be the only factor in the offer of a place.

Back in the 1970s I received remarkably generous offers from five good universities despite being armed with no more than a rather ropey set of O level results. That was because they were prepared to interview me and to back their own judgement of my potential. If you leave everything to A level results I am not sure that my equivalent today would be half as well treated.


Jennie Rigg said...

"the whole point of the exercise was to strike out on your own and escape the influence of parents and schools."

Same for me and pretty much everyone I met at uni in 1996-1999

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I think my blog post suffers from the speed at which I wrote it, so let me be clearer. I don't think that Furedi's argument is not worthy of comment, or I wouldn't have quoted and linked to him. However, I do think it is part of a long term trend. I went to university in 1994-1997 and like Jennie this wasn't something I recall coming across, but if you are going to have a system of mass HE in which the government sets an arbitrary target of 50% of the population and expects parents to make a greater financial contribution than ever before, then having those self-same parents taking a greater interest in their investment is a natural consequence. In some ways it even detracts from Furedi's overall thesis in that this is an example of parents taking greater responsibility rather than demanding an ever more weening state.

In terms of universities offering places on the basis of O-levels, those days went along with the exam in question. And again, if you do adopt industrial scale HE, what do you expect?

To be honest, in terms of sorting out HE, I wouldn't start from here. But if we are going to have mass production of university degrees, the least we can do is give people as level a playing field as possible (while recognising that with employers now facing the prospect of hundreds of applicants with identical degrees, the old school tie and other pernicious advantages based on wealth such as being able to do internships for no pay for six months has managed to reassert itself).

dreamingspire said...

quaequam postscript is much appreciated, particularly as I live in a conurbation with two universities, one oldish with (these days) lots of rich kids and the other an upstart with lots of OK kids. But, Jonathan, look where having all those universities drooling over you got you: a mere blogger and chronicler of the Stiperstones, of an upper class twit, and of cats. Pity the Lib Dems were not in a position to elect you instead of Cleggy - you would have stiffened their spines.