Checking out a university - for my daughter
OPINION: I'm at my first university lecture in almost 25 years. But this is no English 101 - instead, I'm sitting next to my 17-year-old daughter, listening to a design lecturer talking about the design programme that prospective students might enrol in next year.
Looking around, at least a third of those in the packed auditorium are parents. Beside a teenage boy and girl is a parent, or possibly two, flanking them like protectors, hanging off every word.
It's university open day season, when campuses around the country open their doors and begin selling their courses. At 9am on a Friday morning, we start at Massey University in Wellington, where a VW kombi is parked near the entrance, ushering in high school students who want to get a photo taken in the photo booth. Hungry? There's a sausage stall and free hot drinks, near a band belting out tunes from the student cafe.
We can plan the day by studying a tight-packed programme downloadable on an app. Among the 1177 students there on the day, we hear about the design programme from two lecturers, before dashing across to another auditorium to listen to a third year student talking about studying photography. Battling Wellington's wind, we join a group of prospective students and their parents on a tour of the university halls. Yes, half of those wandering around looking at the - chilly - apartments in the Cube hall have greying hair and are staring wistfully, almost nostalgically, at the empty bottles and chore lists in the small student kitchens.
I bump into a friend who has flown down from Auckland to tour Massey with her daughter who wants to study fine arts. Another leaves Massey's open day for Auckland, to attend AUT's open day with her daughter the next morning. My daughter has already flown to Otago University to its open day, that time with her father. Her friend has flown to Christchurch and Auckland so far to look at engineering, always with his mother in tow.
We leave Massey and hop on a free university bus to check out Victoria University's architecture and design campus in central Wellington, where we pick up more booklets and listen to another seminar about that university's design programme. My head thumps as I pore over booklets and listen to lectures. Victoria University has 4500 students at its open day, also wooing them with food, drinks and entertainment.
When I went to university 25 years ago, I never attended a single open day. I posted application forms off to Victoria and Massey universities. Accepted into both, I literally tossed a coin and chose to head to Wellington. Dad piled my things on to the back of a trailer and drove me from Napier to Wellington, where I stepped on to a campus for the first time.
But universities didn't have to sell themselves when there were minimal fees and the system was centrally controlled. I had long graduated when tertiary education became competitive and demand-driven in 1999 - student loans swept in a year later - and institutions began vying for the lucrative student dollar.
Over the years, I've checked out creches, kindergartens, and schools for my three daughters. A generation ago, parents (usually) happily skipped the next step, leaving their teens to embark on the next step of their life journey on their own.
But tertiary costs have never been more crippling. We parents are increasingly protective of where our kids will spend their money, topped up by those of us who can or want to help. Massey explains that a year's study on a basic degree will set these 17 to 19-year-olds back $5000 to $6,200 in tertiary fees alone, and to budget for at least $15,000 in living costs on top of that.
With that in mind, universities and tertiary institutions know they may also need to win over parents. Auckland University has a Parents 101 seminar on its open day - a 50 minute orientation guide showing " what resources we have to help your child succeed".
Cathy Powley, Victoria University's associate student recruitment director, tells me: "We definitely see a number of parents and whānau coming along and we encourage that – we hold sessions that are geared specifically to parents, which are well attended. Some students still come as school groups with teachers."
Tony Kane, principal of Kapiti College, says that universities and tertiary institutions are pitching themselves way more than they did even a decade ago, when he started heading the high school. Along with the open days, they come into his school and hold information evenings during the year.
And my daughter? She's currently applying for a restricted course at one tertiary institution and an open course at another. One thing is true though - she won't be tossing a coin if she gets into both. Just as university marketing machines have become slicker, the days of giving a course a shot for the hell of it are long gone.