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

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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 voucher­ 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.”

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