In days past, parents in Britain were often uninterested bystanders when it came to decisions about where their children would go to university. Now they are so important that student recruitment advertising is targeting them directly.
Online forum and social media network the Student Room has partnered with Mumsnet, the online forum for parents, to allow universities to aim advertising directly at parents and their children at the same time.
A marketing pitch by the Student Room sent to universities reads as follows: "Over the past year we’ve had the pleasure of talking to many of you about reaching the student market … but one thing we’ve been asked for time and again is 'how can we reach the parents?’ So we’ve teamed up with … Mumsnet, to offer you a brilliant parent targeting solution."
Jason Geall, managing director of the Student Room, said the traffic the site receives from parents has "grown substantially" over the past two years, with figures suggesting that there are more than 16,000 parents active on its forums – a 20 percent increase over the past 12 months. "In the parental market, we are seeing people coming on to the site for monitoring purposes: they are able to assess and understand what is being talked about before helping their children make informed decisions," Geall said.
Universities hoping to target this market can now also get their messages out on Mumsnet, Britain's biggest social network for parents. As well as targeting parents online, universities are increasingly looking to capitalize on face-to-face meetings.
According to research agency YouthSight, the number of parents attending university open days has been steadily increasing. In 2009-10, 47 percent of students in attendance were accompanied by at least one parent, with the figure rising to 49 percent in 2010-11 and 50 percent in 2011-12.
"Parents have been turning up at open days uninvited for some time; it is just that universities have got wise to the fact," said David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies. "Some have invented a part of the open day where you separate the parents from the children and have a different pitch for each – emphasizing different things. You might show the parents the laundry room while you show the student the beer-soaked student union bar."
However, Palfreyman suggested that some universities could have "an ulterior motive" for being nice to parents: "Fleecing them for donations."
He added: "Once you’ve [met] them at open days and then [they] bring their kiddiewinks [when term starts], you can invite them to the vice-chancellor’s tea party and ask them to donate. They become an extension to your friends of the university. I’m sure that’s in the equation – not that you are linking it to admission, of course."
Emma Leech, director of marketing, communications and recruitment at the University of Nottingham, agreed that there was a definite trend toward targeting parents. "Increasingly in the wake of higher fees, parents are even more influential and we see that reflected in attendance at open days. Education is seen as a major investment," she said.
"Even families where mum and dad are divorced are coming to our open days together. There will be people coming through the door who physically hate each other – and the five-hour journey here will have killed both of them – but they are here together to give support."