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Paula Hixenbaugh, University of Westminster

Editor’s Note: Paula Hixenbaugh will be a keynote speaker at the combined Region 2 Conference / Second International Conference on Personal Tutoring and Academic Advising Conference, coming up in Pittsburgh, PA on April 16-18th.


As I look forward to the 2008 NACADA Region 2 Conference, which will also be the Second International Conference on Personal Tutoring and Academic Advising, I am struck by some of the similarities as well as some of the differences in our work. Your recent Concept of Advising Statement provides a clear framework in which you formulate policy and practice. In the United Kingdom, we lack a national organization devoted to those interested in Personal Tutoring and the field remains fragmented, although there is a core group of active researchers and practitioners in the area. I think we have much to learn from you, and I hope that we also have something of value to share.

In my talk at the Conference, I will address the social and political context in which advising/tutoring takes place in the United Kingdom. Additionally, I will discuss some of the research we have conducted at the University of Westminster over the last three years which is helping to inform policy and practice.

More than 10 years ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair was elected on a platform which emphasized education. “Education, Education, Education” became the British Labour Party’s rallying cry of the 1997 election. Just before his recent departure, Tony Blair reflected on the last 10 years. “Education is the most precious gift a society can bestow on its children. When I said the top three priorities of the Government in 1997 would be education, education, education I knew then that changing educational opportunity was the surest way to changing lives, to social justice” (Blair, 2006).

Few would argue that education is the foundation for improved life opportunities. It is estimated that over their working lives, graduates in the United Kingdom earn over £100,000 ($200,000) more than non-graduates. It is estimated that the government also benefits by collecting higher taxes from these graduates, estimated to be 11% over and above the cost of providing a university education. But to what extent has educational opportunity changed in the United Kingdom over the last 10 years? The government has had a clear target of 50% participation of 18-30 year olds in higher education by 2010, and we are well on the way to achieving this with a current participation rate of 43%. However, the increase in student numbers has come largely from the middle classes and the educational social engineering targets of the British Labour Government have largely failed.

Currently, there is a renewed emphasis on widening participation as seen in the Government’s HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) Strategic Plan 2006-11:

Despite the expansion of student numbers, some groups in society are still under-represented in HE. We cannot afford to waste talent simply because of a reluctance to foster it. That means continuing to reach out to those for whom HE seems beyond reach, not for any lack of potential, but often for reasons of family or community tradition. This challenge of widening access and increasing participation remains a crucial part of our mission (HEFCE, p.9).

But it is not good enough to recruit students into University if they are not able to complete their studies. Students leave their course early for a variety of reasons. While there has been extensive research on why students fail, there is much less work on what enables students to succeed. What is clear, however, is that the better the student experience, the more likely students are to persist with their studies. In a recent major review of retention in United Kingdom Higher Education (National Audit Office), the authors state that:

There are two especially important areas where we concluded that an institution can target their work and make a difference, these are: getting to really know their students and how, generally, they feel about their particular course of study and the culture and amenities offered in the institution; and developing a more positive approach to retention related activities that recognise how they can also improve student success, and so attract students to take up services who might otherwise not do so (p.10).

This is exactly what Personal Tutors aim to do by forming one-to-one relationships with students and helping them to integrate socially and academically. I was struck with the similarity of these goals with the statement in the Preamble of NACADA ’s Concept of Academic Advising:

Through academic advising, students learn to become members of their higher education community, to think critically about their roles and responsibilities as students, and to prepare to be educated citizens of a democratic society and a global community (NACADA, 2006, Preamble).

However, to be able to do this effectively we need clear information on the needs of our students. In an attempt to better understand our students, for the last three years, all first year students at the University of Westminster have been sent an online survey which includes a number of psychometric scales measuring, for example, physical health, mental health, coping, social and academic integration, and health and lifestyle variables.

The analysis is still ongoing, but we have found significant differences between those students who have seriously considered abandoning their course and those who have not on almost all measures. They report poorer estimations of their current health, poorer estimation of their health now compared to one year ago (i.e. a reduction in health status), lower feelings of integration into the university, lower levels of satisfaction with their courses, lower estimations of social support and lower estimations of general well-being. These vulnerable students also tend to come from families where the parents have relatively low levels of education. It may be that students who do not come from a background of higher education do not have the benefit of experience and have unrealistic expectations of university life.

An important factor emerging from our research is that the significant variables we have identified are measures of students’ attitudes, feelings, and beliefs about concepts and events. It may be that interventions targeted at enabling students to have more accurate perceptions and expectations will be more beneficial than trying to change actual structures.

Our research is providing evidence for the importance of a holistic approach to tutoring/advising. This is clearly in agreement with the emphasis many in NACADA place on a developmental approach to advising and hopefully adds to the growing body of evidence that, as your Past President Susan Campbell (2007) wrote, “academic advising, when approached holistically and developmentally, really does support student success!”

Paula Hixenbaugh, Professor
Department of Psychology
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London W1B 2UW
[email protected]

Blair, T. (November 30, 2006). “Education is the most precious gift.”   Speech presented for Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Annual Conference. Retrieved January 16, 2008 from www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page10514.asp.

Campbell, S. M. (2007). Take advantage of the moment. Academic Advising Today, 30 :2.

NAO. Staying the course: The retention of students in higher education. Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General HC 616 Session 2006-2007, July 26, 2007. Retrieved January 16, 2008 from www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/06-07/0607616.pdf.

HEFCE Strategic Plan 2006-2011 www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2006/06_13/06_13.doc.

National Academic Advising Association. (2006). NACADA concept of academic advising. Retrieved January 3, 2008 fromwww.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/Concept-Advising.htm

Cite this article using APA style as: Hixenbaugh, P. (2008, March). The concept of advising: From theory to practice - the United Kingdom context. Academic Advising Today, 31(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]


Posted in: 2008 March 31:1


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