Parents are the most important influencers when a student decides about higher education, says Bart Shaw. It’s time to get them on board

As enrolment season ends and students get into the groove of their courses, keen eyes will already be looking to the horizon for what comes next. Efforts to support students from under-represented groups into higher education need to start early, and they need to be well-focused and evidencebased.

But competing pressures – not least dramatic budget cuts across the sector – make that job increasingly challenging. It’s time to call in the reinforcements.

When it comes to students’ decisions about HE, our research shows that parents are the most important influencers. Students are looking for advice that takes into account their own personalities and that is grounded in a deep understanding of what might suit them as individuals. Unsurprisingly, family members are best placed to do this. Advice from external sources is less likely to hit the mark.

When it comes to students’ decisions about HE, parents are the most important influencers.

Over the past few years, we have spoken to hundreds of students about their next steps. They have consistently emphasised that their parents are their most trusted sources of information and often the “makers or breakers” for students weighing options. Students in Teesside, for example, explained that their sense that colleges or universities are “selling” HE courses was a major turn-off.

Many parents can hold sceptical views about HE, sometimes based on misconceptions. Our 2018 report on parental engagement with university outreach showed that although most, regardless of socio-economic group, want their children to go to university, they also have deep fears about debt, living costs and employment prospects. While colleges can and should address gaps in students’ knowledge about HE, the messages students receive at home will either reinforce or undermine any such efforts. That is why it is crucial to work with parents to understand their concerns and develop their knowledge. This is particularly the case when working with students whose parents do not have first-hand experience of HE. Colleges should think about three main things.

First, they should help parents plan ahead for conversations about HE. There’s no better time than the present to provide basic information about pathways their college courses might lead on to, and the basics about the language of HE. For example, what is an apprenticeship? What are the differences between different levels of apprenticeship? What is the difference between HE and FE? What is the difference between a foundation degree and other degrees? What do BA and BSc mean?

Next, colleges should provide detailed support around some of the things parents worry about most. Gaps in knowledge about finance, living away from home and job prospects can drive inequitable access further down the line.

Colleges therefore need to address common worries such as whether students will struggle to complete their HE course if they take part-time work, or the perceived pressure from student debt to take a low-paid job after graduation.

Finally, and perhaps hardest of all, colleges should work with universities to make sure parents are included in widening participation activities. Visits to universities should include an option for parents to come along where appropriate, and colleges can work with universities to offer parents’ sessions within the college.

The University of Bath, for example, builds activities for parents into its outreach programme, and provides contact details to allow parents to access advice at times that suit them. Given many low-income parents’ unpredictable and complex work patterns, such opportunities need to be offered many times throughout the day.

The solution to the problem of widening participation is standing on our doorsteps. Supporting students in their decision-making around HE means supporting their parents at the same time. It might mean doing some things differently, but with parents fighting on our side, there’s no destination on the horizon that can stay out of students’ reach.