The rise of the helicopter parent at Australian universities

Academics say they are seeing a rise in helicopter parents at university.
Academics say they are seeing a rise in helicopter parents at university. Photo: Andrew Quilty

Australian academics are dealing with a new and unexpected force on campus: parents.

Mums and dads are contacting lecturers to query their adult children’s grades, sitting in on meetings with course coordinators and repeatedly phoning academics to inquire about students' progress.

In one case, a mother threatened legal action after her child missed out on a place in a tutorial because it was full.

Parents are increasingly involving themselves in their adult children's university education.
Parents are increasingly involving themselves in their adult children's university education. Photo: Paul Jones

“In the past the student would complain about the mark,” one Monash University lecturer said. “Now the parents complain about the mark.”

Academics say helicopter parents who were once overly involved in their child’s primary and secondary schooling are now trying to resolve their issues at university.

National Tertiary Education Union national president Alison Barnes, who recently worked at Macquarie University, said she increasingly received calls from distressed parents who wanted to review and discuss their child’s grades.

“When I was teaching there was a rise in parents phoning up to raise concerns,” she said.

“It was time-consuming.”

Dr Barnes said privacy laws meant she was unable to disclose anything about an adult student's situation with their parents.

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She suspects the commercialisation of university, and the high price of degrees, has fuelled the behaviour.

“Parents are spending more money on their children’s education and children are clocking up big HECS debt,” she said.

“That puts a lot of pressure on kids to do well. If kids aren't passing then that can lead to parents getting involved.”

Universities have responded by publishing special guides for parents and inviting them to connect with counselling services on campus.

At the University of Melbourne, an online resource guides parents through the process of letting go.

“Schools provide many opportunities for parents to be involved and work in partnership in educating their children,” it reads.

“Many of you will miss this close connection now that they are uni students. So much is unknown to you about their daily environment. You don’t know the staff, you don’t know if anyone is monitoring their progress and watching out for them.”

At Monash University, student ambassadors are trained to tackle questions from parents in the lead-up to open day.

Staff have noticed an increase in parents attending open days and asking questions.

“Parents are coming in mobs and the numbers have increased,” Monash University education lecturer Sarika Kewalramani said.

La Trobe University's pro vice-chancellor Professor Jessica Vanderlelie said parents were showing an increased interest in where and what students chose to study.

"This is multi-faceted and closely linked to the changing nature of work and labour market trends,” she said.

“Families, carers and friends play a vital role in ensuring students transition well to university, are able to manage their studies and to navigate any bumps along the way.”

Parental involvement at universities is even more pronounced overseas.

Every year at Tianjin University in China, more than 1000 parents camp in tents on campus and look out for their children as they settle into college. And in the US, a popular app provides the parents of college students with access to their child's academic and financial data.

The recent college admissions scandal in the US, which involved wealthy parents bribing officials at top universities to secure admission for their children,  has been described as one of the most "egregious" examples of "parental helicoptering in recent memory".

Queensland University of Technology parenting expert Professor Marilyn Campbell said parents were having a greater influence on their adult children than ever before.

She said this was because children were living at home for longer due to the steep cost of university.

“Parents are still advocating for their child while they are at university,” Dr Campbell said.

“The influence of the parent is probably more now than it has ever been.”

But she warned that this sort of involvement could come at a cost.

She said over-protective parents were not preparing children for adulthood and life’s ups and downs.

One Victorian university employee, who works in student support, said she was shocked by the lack of resilience she was seeing in young people.

"When I ask them to work through an issue and resolve it themselves, many of them can never remember doing that," she said.

She said parents were turning up at her office unannounced, wanting to discuss issues concerning their children.

"They want to explain problems away and they don't want their children to go through processes because it is too stressful for them," she said.

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