David Grey and Dave Lochtie, UK Advising and Tutoring Executive Committee Members
UK Advising and Tutoring (UKAT), the first allied association of NACADA outside of North America, aspires to lead the development and dissemination of innovative theory, research, and practice of student advising and tutoring in the UK higher education sector. Traditionally, the UK has provided academic advising through a pastoral model (Thomas, 2006), collectively known as personal tutoring—a term which researchers in the US (Scott, 2013) and UK (Robinson, 2012) most closely equate with faculty academic advising. Historically, this model has its roots in the 16th century practices of Oxford and Cambridge universities in which academics acted in loco parentis for their students. Alternative models are becoming more common in the UK, with the main alternatives being the professional model (Thomas, 2006), which makes use of professional advisors rather than faculty, and the integrated curriculum model (Thomas, 2006), which seeks to make advising a seamless part of the academic curriculum.
In early 2016, UKAT ran a pilot survey open to all 164 UK higher education institutions (HEIs) to gain some initial insight into personal tutoring and academic advising practices in the UK, prior to undertaking a more thorough study. There were 47 respondents representing 32 different HEIs: 55% were personal tutors (faculty advisors), 21% were professional support staff working in student welfare and support services (professional, but not necessarily academic, advisors), and 21% were institutional managers (those individuals working in HE who have knowledge of the cirriculum but main responsibilities fall outside of that role). This article addresses the results of UKAT's survey and compares them with the results of the NACADA (Carlstrom, 2011) survey to offer some comparisons of academic advising in the differing higher education environments of the US and the UK.
Who advises who and when are tutors allocated?
The NACADA survey (Carlstrom, 2011) stated that 82% of institutions have professional advisors. No direct comparison is possible, but UKAT’s data suggests that there are fewer professional advisors in the UK, with responses indicating that only 41% of the HEIs represented have staff whose job titles are synonymous with professional advising. Due largely to the popularity of the traditional pastoral model, academic faculty are still the primary providers of student advice and support in the UK, although over two thirds of respondents suggested that not all academic faculty serve as personal tutors.
According to 98% of UKAT's respondents, all students have personal tutors, and over one third have more than one personal tutor during their studies. In over half the cases, students are allocated a personal tutor as they begin their initial classes but not during the summer beforehand. This perhaps differs from practice in the US due to the way in which UK university admissions are generally dependent on nationally coordinated high school exam results that are not released until several weeks before the course commences. The importance of building relationships and establishing a solid foundation for student success at an earlier stage is recognized in the UK (Thomas, 2012), but is perhaps less easily achieved than in the US.
What do students know about personal tutoring?
Despite almost all students being allocated a personal tutor, those tutors who responded to UKAT's survey indicated that not all students know the name or contact details of the tutor to whom they had been assigned. In some cases, we found students were unaware that they have a personal tutor at all, echoing McCary, Johnstone, Valentine, and Berry’s study (2011) which found that this was true for 18% of students. In contrast, academic managers responding to UKAT's survey thought that all students knew their tutor, but the sample size is too small to be significant.
UKAT's respondents also suggested that students are clearly informed at the outset, via written documentation, what they can expect from their personal tutor and from the process as well as what is expected of them as the tutee. However, Gubby and McNab (2013) state that students are not always aware of the ways in which their personal tutor can help them, so perhaps the written expectations are unclear or students are not reading the information given to them.
It is unclear how the experience of students in UK institutions compares with the experience of students in US institutions as this data was not sought as part of the NACADA survey. It may be a relevant enquiry for future research.
What do tutors advise?
98% of respondents in the NACADA (Carlstrom, 2011) survey suggest that academic advisors help develop a plan of study for their students and 99% are involved in course scheduling and registration. These specific aspects were not examined in UKAT's survey because UK degrees lack the general foundation subjects and students sign up to a specific major from the outset, meaning that they have less choice in terms of plans of study and less complication in scheduling and registration. For this reason, less support is generally provided in this area unless a student considers changing major entirely, which may have length of study and financial implications. UKAT's respondents reported that in the UK tutors provide support equally across five main areas: pastoral issues, student success, academic skill development, employability, and the creation of personal development plans. Two thirds of respondents indicated that setting personal goals is a part of the tutoring process, but tutors do not monitor achievement of these goals.
Tutors reported feeling much more comfortable in providing academic advice or signposting than in providing pastoral support, seemingly confirming the literature (Hart, 1996; Stephen, O’Connell, & Hall, 2008). With research supporting personal difficulties as the primary role of personal tutoring (Owen, 2002), there appears to be a mismatch between the support students may require and what tutors feel well prepared to offer.
How is tutoring structured, supported, and rewarded?
The National Audit Office suggested in 2007 that further structure was required in the organization of personal tutoring, but UKAT's research did not give the impression that significant improvements have been made. Around half of UKAT's respondents suggested their institution advocated a planned and structured program of activities, but the majority stated that they did not have a clearly defined and documented personal tutoring policy. Nearly half of UKAT's respondents had no minimum number of meetings required during the year, and nearly all reported the lack of a defined schedule for tutoring meetings. NACADA’s survey suggested some more structure and increased student meetings are likely in the US where professional advisors were employed (Robbins, 2013).
An issue that occurs repeatedly in the personal tutoring (and US based faculty advising) literature is the potentially high workload associated with acting in this capacity and the lack of protected time for carrying out the role. UKAT's respondents suggested that on average personal tutors are responsible for around 30–35 students each, although in extreme cases this can rise to over 100 students. This is higher than the 25 undergraduate students advised per faculty advisor suggested by NACADA’s (Carlstrom, 2011) survey. The literature also suggests that tutoring is not included in timetables or the time allocated is insufficient, causing tutors to work beyond their contract often at the expense of research (Dobinson-Harrington, 2006; Gubby & McNab, 2013; Hart, 1996; Owen, 2002). This may explain why students sometimes find the personal tutoring process hurried and disappointing (Dobinson-Harrington, 2006) or are discouraged from seeking support from a tutor that they perceive to be too busy (Owen, 2002).
UKAT's respondents indicated that tutors did not generally feel well supported by their institutions in carrying out their role. The National Audit Office (2007) suggested that further training of personal tutors is required, yet almost 60% of respondents stated that their institution did not train their personal tutors. Responses indicate that tutors were trained every few years at most and all training reported in the survey was provided online and not in-person. NACADA’s survey stated that faculty advisors were largely left on their own to manage their professional development (Wallace, 2011) and this also appears to be the case in the UK as many respondents suggested training was only provided on demand.
Strong pastoral support systems have been identified as having a positive influence on student achievement and retention (Grant, 2006), yet none of UKAT's respondents indicated that a personal tutoring role is recognized in the promotion criteria for faculty. So why do UK HEIs persist with a seemingly archaic system of student support which, if performed well, requires staff to invest significant personal effort that is neither recognized nor rewarded?
Conclusions and possible implications for future study
The results of UKAT's initial pilot echo the findings of other research studies performed in the UK over the last 25 years (Grant, 2006; Owen, 2002; Thomas, 2006). Many UK HEIs are now reconsidering and revising their approaches to personal tutoring. Some, which abandoned a pastoral model in favor of a (centralized but largely on-demand only) professional model, are now considering reintroducing a pastoral approach. Following recent changes in government policy, many HEIs are revising their approaches to personal tutoring, and hybrid pastoral-professional-curriculum models are becoming more commonplace. It seems an appropriate time to engage in a more robust longitudinal study to explore emerging models and the effect these may have in addressing the major issues of staff engagement, workload, rewards, and training, all in relation to pro-actively supporting the student experience. Successful coordination between professional and academic roles seems vital to achieving this, as it is in the US, with the potential for valuable lessons to be learned from international comparisons made either side of the Atlantic.
David Grey, PhD
Project Leader - Academic Support Tuition project
The University of Hull
UK Advising and Tutoring
Dave Lochtie, MA
Student Opportunities Manager
University of Derby Students Union
(formerly Student Success Counselor, The University of New Orleans)
Executive Committee Member, UK Advising and Tutoring
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Cite this article using APA style as: Grey, D., & Lochie, D. (2016, September). Comparing personal tutoring in the UK and academic advising in the US. Academic Advising Today, 39(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]