Set them up with survival skills
Future undergraduates are well advised to learn how to cook and manage a budget — as well as get their grades, says Helena Pozniak
Going to university is a bit like pregnancy, complains one mother. “It’s all about ‘the birth’, the getting there,” says Jane Price from Winchester, who has waved off one son and is now preparing her daughter for student life. “The last four years have focused on exams and targets — no one talks enough about what you do when you get there.” How do you fill the hours between lectures, hand work in on time and make the most of all that university has to offer?
At this time of year, the excitement of students leaving home is palpable. But while the class of 2013 are getting their toes under their university desks, next year’s intake will mostly have their heads down preparing to gain qualifications that will dictate the path of their higher education and career. Yet they not only need to pass exams, choose their degree subject and institution and write a personal statement, but also get ready to wash their own clothes, manage money, stay safe and negotiate a wider social circle than they have been used to.
Parents can do much to prepare their children when it comes to housewifery, hygiene and emotional independence. “This year is partly about letting go,” says Sonia Hendy-Isaac, senior lecturer and careers and curriculum expert at Birmingham City University. “It is the perfect opportunity to allow your child to start making decisions about money, lifestyle and experience.”
Back in Winchester, Price has tried to instil life skills into her daughter Poppy, 18, before she takes up her place at Leeds Metropolitan University. Poppy has learnt that you can get three meals from a chicken, how to get home safely in the small hours and that the washing doesn’t do itself.
“Teenagers need to learn that actions have consequences and that it’s advisable to plan ahead. They also need to understand that they’ll be pushed out of their comfort zone in the first months away and that university life won’t all be rosy,” says Price, who previously worked as a nurse attached to a university, where she saw students sink or swim in their first term. “It was those who had been repressed at home who went mad socialising, and the shy, academic types who got homesick.”
Like many parents, she has given Poppy an allowance since the age of 16 and spelled out how much she had to spend each week, and on what. “She learnt that when it’s gone, it’s gone,” says Price.
An average undergraduate, however, burns through his or her first term’s maintenance loan in 51 days, leaving four weeks with no cash, according to research by vouchercodes.co.uk. For most students, this is the largest lump sum they will have handled, and some can’t cope with budgeting.
While sixth-formers often focus on the fun of attending university open days and choosing courses, many neglect to sort out their student finance in time, says Vicki Sellens, transition and progression manager at Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA) and a former Connexions adviser. She has met students who do not even realise they need a bank account. The sixthform years, she says, are the ideal time for parents to gently school their child in the basics of budgeting and financial responsibility.
In London, Hilly Janes is preparing to have a final safe-sex chat with her son, who is off to university armed with a food processor, driving licence and the principles of healthy eating and money management — skills she has had him working on for years. She has also told him to let her know if he is not enjoying the course. “I worry that without the structure of school, or me to nag him out of bed, he may not attend lectures,” she says.
While the latest figures show that UK university drop-out rates have fallen to 7.4 per cent from 8.6 per cent the previous year, and are extremely low at Oxbridge and most Russell Group universities, they can reach above 20 per cent elsewhere. So listen to your child when it comes to course choices. Since tuition fees have soared, parents have tended to push their children towards vocational subjects, often with “business” in the title, says HendyIsaac. “In my view, students who do a degree for the love of a subject perform better than those who opt for one their parents favoured.”
At 17 or 18 it’s fine not to have a burning vocation, she says, and important that parents empathise. “Be honest: most of us didn’t know what we wanted to do at that age,” she says. But it is equally vital to encourage teenagers early to investigate potential careers. As well as being a sounding board, try to raise practical questions. Forensic science is a fascinating subject, but how many jobs come up in this field? How could your child broaden their career options?
“School summer holidays are critical for gaining work experience; the earlier the better, even if it’s finding out what you don’t want to do,” says Hendy-Isaac. Publishing isn’t all editing and reading manuscripts, for example, and a short spell in a dream career might be a reality check — or a spur to work harder.
Gentle prompting could help your child articulate skills acquired from part-time jobs — negotiating tasks with colleagues, for instance, or time management. “Students coming to interview might not be able to identify the experience they have; they won’t see the relevance or communicate it in the right way,” says Hendy-Isaac.
“I’m wary of applicants who have done amazing things but not thought through what they’ve got out of them,” says Dr Anne-Marie Drummond, academic registrar at the University of Southampton and former admissions tutor at a University of Oxford college. “A good personal statement shows that they have considered and planned their personal development.”
Having seen six children and three stepchildren off to university, Dr Drummond believes that encouraging them to explore beyond their comfort zone reaps benefits. Her latest daughter to flee the nest, now studying fashion and textiles in London, found a fortnight’s work experience at a theatre while in the sixth-form, and masterminded a college fashion show. “She was focused and dynamic as well as passionate about her subject. Other children of mine have been more timorous, but you can translate a range of activities into skills, including team sports and singing in a choir.”
Even if your child turns 18 without grasping the finer points of time management and hygiene, it’s not the end of the world, says Hendy-Isaac. The first year at university is a time to make mistakes and live in the moment; exams must be passed but they rarely count towards the final degree.
“Once you’ve equipped your children with survival skills, they’re on their own,” says Janes. “They need to know you’re there if things go wrong, but you can’t mollycoddle them through life.”