Saturday, July 13, 2019

University open days - a non-helicopter Dad's take

Lancaster University ducks
So, I’m on another round of University open days at the moment. In so many ways it’s a fascinating sociological experiment; overhearing the snippets of chats between parents, while their self-conscious and slightly embarrassed offspring are weighing up the merits of the ‘student experience’ through a wholly different lens.

I can’t claim it’s an advantage, but I suppose I know what to expect given I’ve volunteered at an undergraduate open day at work, so I’ve seen it all fall into place from different perspectives. Although my job isn’t normally what you’d describe as ‘student facing’ the experiences were particularly helpful. It reminded you of the purpose of the organisation: to educate young people and give them an experience that raised their ambition. That starts with how they are treated at every stage of the way.

My colleagues in student recruitment at Manchester Met are pretty damn good at what they do. I see up close the hard work they put in to the small details that contribute to the open days being successful. Clearly, in such a competitive marketplace for students, these days have all uniformly shown the universities off in the very best light. You see it in the armies of staff volunteers, student helpers, the guest lecturers, advisers, senior leaders from the institutions, and it starts at the train station.

I always tried to speak to the students directly, rather than just to the parents, even if they were doing a lot of the talking. I figured it’s important to engage them in brief conversations, even in that fleeting moment, about what they wanted and what they thought of the experience. They’re on a journey towards independence  away from the influences of home, the presence of the parents is supportive, yet the dynamic has the potential to be fraught with tension and awkwardness. The only exception I made to my golden rule of ‘students first’ was when I was confronted by a musical hero, with his daughter. After a brief chat about a forthcoming festival, he gave me a look that very visibly reminded me why he was there.

As a large family, we’ve also got two other ‘advantages’. One is we’ve done it before; though I went to loads of open days with Joe, he ended up picking the one that he went to on his own and of his own volition, which rather proves the previous point. We also have the contrast between the parental experience of one of our sons passing into the care of the British Army. They presented a very realistic though very reassuring picture of military life, and the flow of information on his progress has been rather more thorough than any university would provide.

In this phase of visits we’ve also been looking at the University I went to 30 odd years ago, the University of Manchester (or down the road, as we call it) and the one a couple of miles from where I grew up, Lancaster University.

That has managed to lay a few traps for me. I think I avoided being the Dad who pointed out loudly where my old department and hall of residence was, or told slightly painful anecdotes about what he got up to ‘back in the day’. Though I did say ‘wow’ a couple of times at Lancaster because the campus I used to visit from time to time is so much better nowadays. And the ducks are still there.

But I did wince when a parent asked a politics lecturer what the ideological leanings of the department were. Came the reply: “Do you mean are we a bunch of demented Marxist revolutionaries? No.”

My son Matt isn’t being drawn on preferences just yet. It’s a complex changing picture, with many moving parts. He’s taking it all in, and I’m trying not to lead the witness.

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