Forced labour 1

May 14, 2009

The feature on the importance of the tutor-student relationship ("The personal touch", 7 May) was a reminder of Cardinal Newman's dictum that a university should be an alma mater, knowing her students one by one, rather than "a foundry, mint or treadmill". One treadmill not mentioned is the outside work most students must undertake to have any chance of remaining at university. This is why they may want fewer contact hours and fail to show up for personal tutor meetings that have no direct bearing on their assessed work.

To that extent they are forced to co-operate with what Graham Gibbs, visiting senior research fellow at the Oxford Learning Institute, crudely describes as the "cheat" of viring teaching resources to research.

He has a point, of course. Giving priority to research has a detrimental effect not just on contact hours but also on many teachers' willingness to range beyond their specialism.

A head of English at one university told me the story of a colleague who was asked to teach a course on the literature of the 1640s. "Impossible," came the reply. "I'm working on the 1630s." The effect is that it is more and more difficult to implement the only pastoral system that really works by ensuring students are consistently taught by their personal tutor.

For all the difficulties of the situation, Mary Evans might like to be reminded that "traditional and supportive academic tutors" ("A special relationship is being lost", 7 May) are to be found everywhere. What she appears to represent as that regrettable phenomenon called "mass higher education" has produced many universities justified in thinking of themselves as true alma maters.

David Roberts, John Henry Newman chair, Newman University College.

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