Mother knows best
Naomi Temull is not sure what she is going to study at university, but she will probably go. “It looks like fun education,” says the 13-year-old Portsmouth schoolgirl. “A lot of people are put off, saying it’s going to be like school – really boring.” But she has met current Portsmouth students during sessions of the university’s Up for It club. “A lot of them say it’s hard work, but it’s really good for getting a job afterwards and a lot of the facilities are really good.”
Naomi had not thought much about university until she went to workshops on design run by the club. The prospect of fees wouldn’t put her off, but might determine whether she stays at home to study.
She says her mother would support her whether she wants to go to university or do an apprenticeship. But one suspects just watching her mother is an influence. “She’s studying a language course at university. I saw what she has to do and it’s a bit daunting – 2,000-word essays, that shocked me.” But, as Naomi says, she will be more motivated when she is studying what she wants to, unlike at school.
The crucial influence of parents – particularly mothers – emerges in a study of attitudes among 11- to 16-year-olds to higher education, published by Portsmouth University today. The young people were members of the university’s Up for It club, which caters mainly for local youngsters, but also has 3,000 members in Malaysia.
Although most attention has been on the financial barriers to attracting more young people into higher education, the study shows money is not the only concern.
They worry about not getting a job at the end, and about choosing the wrong course (girls particularly). Of the 750 children surveyed, a third expressed fears about “not fitting in” and a quarter about “not making friends”, which, says Anne Burrill, head of educational outreach at Portsmouth, shows anxiety about bullying.
The report, Aspirations and Influences, compares the pupils’ attitudes with a national sample of current students. Their responses show that fears about not fitting in, feeling homesick and not making friends fall away quickly when they get to university. On the other hand, worries about debt and managing their workloads increase significantly. The report suggests that workload has been overlooked as an issue for students, in the debate about debt.
When it comes to encouraging secondary-school pupils to go to university, the mother is the most important influence mentioned – as she is for current students – followed by father, friends and a subject teacher. The media and the headteacher are least likely to be cited as a positive influence. In fact, the media was the only significant negative influence raised by potential students – 14% said the media put them off going to university.
Maria Alfonzo, 14, is typical of the optimistic attitude expressed by many of the young people surveyed. It’s probably no coincidence that her mother went to university. Maria says her favourite subject is English, but she hopes to be a video games designer and reckons she will have to learn more about maths and graphic design. “I’ve never doubted I would go to university,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind going away – I would miss home, but it would be good. Everybody speaks about it as a time when you make friends for life.
She doesn’t see money as a problem. “If I do go to university, I will probably get a good job and earn enough to pay it off.”
Boys are less likely to be so confident. While a third of the overall sample of 11- to 16-year-olds said they were certain to go to university, this was lower for boys and more of them were in the “don’t know” category. Very few said they would definitely not go to into higher education.
The report notes: “Uncertainty amongst boys is further highlighted by the fact that a higher proportion have parents who went to university: boys 24%, girls 19%.” (Children whose parents went to university are much more likely to do so themselves.)
About half the sample of potential students decided they would go to university at secondary school, but 14% knew at primary school and 18% just ‘always knew I would go’. There is a strong gender difference, however, with over a fifth, 22%, of girls saying they ‘always knew I would go’ compared to just over 11% of boys.
The report finds: “Choosing the wrong course is a significant worry and there are indications that current and potential students rely more on family and friends rather than on professional advisers.”
Student debt is an issue, but does not seem to be a deterrent, the report says. But, it notes: “Students from non-traditional backgrounds, in particular, need even more support from professional sources to make informed and confident choices for their futures.”
The lessons Portsmouth draws from the experience of its work with secondary pupils (now being extended to primary schools) is that an increased use of role models and mentoring would be a good way of responding to their need for information about different opportunities. “Careers support is equally important to many current students; demonstrating that university will help to improve job satisfaction, job choice or security is fundamental to widening participation.”
Burrill and her colleagues argue that the workload issue, which worries both schoolchildren and university students, needs to be tackled. “Children of secondary school age would benefit from coaching or training in study work skills, and ‘life’ lessons in how to plan and manage their own workloads. A fear of not being able to cope with workloads is prevalent and practical training would build confidence.”
The report adds: “Young boys need help improving their confidence and self-belief. This group would also benefit from further study to identify the factors which cause them to feel less determined or motivated than young women.”
And there is a final parting shot for newspapers and television. “The role of the media in influencing young adults would benefit from further exploration, particularly the ways in which the negative effects can be reduced.” Autor: Donald MacLeod