Helena Pozniak
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Lessons in life skills are key to success

The Independent

If a student finds it difficult to cope at university, it’s often down to domestic issues rather than academic performance, explains Helena Pozniak

When Sue Hudson’s son Tom went to summer school at The Bartlett School of Architecture in London while his family went on holiday, he hit a steep learning curve. “He lost the cat, blocked the dishwasher and ran out of money. He probably learnt more from being home alone that he did from the course.”

Hudson’s son was brushing up his art education before starting his architecture degree and emerged with not only a credible portfolio but also some valuable practical know-how. If a student doesn’t cope at university, it’s often down to life skills rather than academic problems. Much of being ready to leave home is to do with general housework.

But many new students arrive bewildered by washing machines, budgets, cooking or how to structure their days, says Simon Allison, head of student support services at the University of Hull, which, like many other institutions, publishes sound advice for fledgling students and the parents waving them off. “Simple skills, which are often overlooked during the intense periods of study for exams or once the summer holidays have begun, can make a considerable difference to students settling in and feeling that they can cope,” Allison says.

One former academic tutor at the University of Winchester remembers her classes filled with students grappling with the practicalities of domestic life: “I was supposed to be teaching them performing arts and all they wanted to know was how to do their washing and what food they should buy. The girls tended to look after the boys, who didn’t have a clue.”

In an ideal world, freshers will arrive fully clued up on the principles of healthy eating and alcohol units, aware that the chores don’t do themselves, and knowing how to shop wisely and have safe sex. “As a parent your job is to ensure they cope on a practical level; that they arrive savvy,” says Jane Phelps, who’s had a long career in advising parents and students on higher education and is now director of external relations at New College of the Humanities. She’s also dispatched three of her own children to university. Educate them in domestic chores before your child leaves and don’t touch the academic angle – that’s the school’s job, she advises. “Most unis publish advice and students shouldn’t be so arrogant not to look at it. So many parents seem to do an awful lot for their children, and for many it’s a shock when they open the fridge and there’s no milk.”

As well as brushing up on domestics, parents can urge students to sign up for events before they’ve set foot at university, says Jane Edwards at student services, Glyndwr University – they can already establish some sort of social life. “We have official and non-official Facebook pages and run pre-fresher workshops to give students a way to connect with each other before arriving on campus,” she says. Get the nitty-gritty over and done with early: remind your child to register with a GP before term starts, and let him or her know all universities offer help – from pastoral staff, student support services, student unions as well as academic staff. Let them know as well that there will be times they’ll feel glum and this isn’t something to fear.

Once term begins, says Phelps, parents should back off and put the mobile away – until at least November, all being well: “If they’re going to be at a low ebb, it’s usually then - they haven’t had a square meal, or they’re lonely.” Find a reason to get in contact or visit if you can, she advises, but avoid examinations of their wellbeing. Be prepared with additional cash if you can. “Take them out for a meal and find something to talk about other than how they’re coping. If you just ask how they are, of course they’ll say ‘fine’.”

Keep children in the loop about home matters, advises Allison, as they need to feel connected with their families. Not every household is hit by empty nest syndrome, but the prospect scares many. As one parent put it: “My daughter seems to be having all the fun, and we’re left grieving for her as though she’s died.” All advice to parents mourning their departed child says “this is your time, indulge your interests”. This is sometimes easier said than done, but it could limit any guilt a child might feel about leaving home, and give a positive role model for positive coping, says Allison.

Even if your child departs without grasping the finer points of time management and personal hygiene, it isn’t the end of the world – at least in the UK education system. The first year at university is a time to make mistakes, be silly, and live in the moment – exams need to be passed but rarely count towards final degrees. Whatever they learn, they need to do so on their own. “Look forward to your son or daughter coming home as a man or a woman,” says Edwards – but be prepared that things may not work out first time.

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