Are personal tutors an anachronism?

As undergraduate numbers soar and student needs become increasingly complex, questions are being asked about whether a support model that relies on the conscientiousness of individual academics is fit for purpose. Here, three scholars explain why, despite its faults, the pastoral role remains crucial

July 7, 2022
Army Air Corp instructor gives some pre-takeoff advice to his student  to illustrate As undergraduate numbers soar and student needs become increasingly complex
Source: Getty

‘There are occasions when the amateur, the concerned human being with no concentrated training, functions better than the specialist professional’

There is a member of the House of Lords who always says nice things about me. He says them on the rare occasions we meet and, I am told, in my absence. He credits me with helping him to survive his first year at university; he went on to be an MP and then a Cabinet minister.

On the other hand, a “mature” student once marched into our departmental office and declared that I was the most unsympathetic person she had ever met in her life. In my view, she had been “playing the system” by trying to secure privileges to which she was not entitled.

In each case, I was their personal tutor and the first port of call whenever they had any problems. This “pastoral role” always appeared to me as the fourth discipline of academia, after teaching, research and administration; I took its existence for granted, having attended a university (Oxford) that had introduced “moral tutors” in the inter-war period. It did not seem odd to me that I was not trained for the role: after all, I was not trained for any of the other component parts of my job. The assumption was that, as a member of an academic community, you could do that sort of thing naturally. Otherwise, one would not have been there, would one? That said, evidence shows that some tutors were much more suited to performing the role than others.

Pastoral care is still very much part of university life, and institutions unfailingly stress its great importance. It is defined as “services provided for students’ emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being”. (“Spiritual” is a big ask, but rather exciting.) And there can be no question that the system is still needed: more than a third of UK university students experience some kind of serious problem with which they need help, one study suggests, and just under 100 take their own lives every year in the UK.

It would be a strange university, at least in the anglophone world, that did not offer pastoral care, although, looking at the evidence, the provision seems to be more highly rated in the newer universities than in the older ones. Several more modern universities – Surrey, Bolton, Chichester, London Met – were rated highly in last year’s National Student Survey, while many of the Russell Group were below 100th place.

Nobody should be surprised by this because pastoral care as I knew it fitted far better into a traditional, collegiate mentality than into the world of the more research-oriented academic. I vividly remember a newly recruited North American academic approaching me when he realised that he had, like everybody else, a list of “personal students” and a set of duties towards them. He made it clear that he was entirely inappropriate for the role, having neither the training nor the inclination to deal with people’s problems, and was, in any case, generally unsympathetic to whingers. The university should employ professionals to deal with students’ problems, he suggested, adding that it was typically English to deal with such things by taking this half-baked, amateur approach. (I translate; it was ruder than that.) In his own terms, he saw himself, as did the committee who had appointed him, as a researcher of great promise, and he was right. A professional researcher doing important work does not want to be interrupted every five minutes – or five hours – by people seeking advice or assistance that he or she feels unqualified to offer.

Arguments for a specialist division of labour are fairly obvious, but I think there are also arguments for the amateur, the all-rounder, the tribal elder who offers advice simply because they are older, experienced, honest and intelligent. And, essentially, I looked on my college, and then my department, as my tribes.

As a traditionalist, I rather enjoyed being a personal tutor. When someone knocked on my door, I was rarely in the throes of a major intellectual breakthrough. More likely I was marking or reading work submitted by a graduate student or plodding through proofs, so talking to another human being seemed quite a nice idea. Of course, most enquiries were repetitive and boring: special arrangements for exams, changes of course, problems with essay deadlines and so on. But there were occasions that required more personal choice of advice; one young woman arrived in my room to report the frantic level of promiscuity she had engaged in during her first week at university. (Advice: you’ve told me, but don’t tell anyone else. Additional, possibly helpful, remark: I know several women of my own age who behaved in a similar manner when they were younger, and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm.) There was also a young woman who took the “personal” bit of personal tutoring too literally when she said that she was terrible at timekeeping and meeting deadlines. Would I discipline her severely?, she asked alarmingly.

Because of my enthusiasm for the role (and, of course, other people’s lack of enthusiasm), I became the designated “senior tutor”, to be consulted when others were absent or had proved unsatisfactory. By that time, I was dealing mainly with overseas students and a kind of generic problem with cultural misunderstandings. The most memorable was a young woman from an East Asian country who came into my room in a subdued rage, brandishing a course document. Her English language credentials were good, she said, but she had calculated that at her reading speed she could not manage to complete the “required reading” even working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. And that was one module; there were three other modules!

How do you explain that “required reading” does not really mean required reading. It means you skim, pick up stuff where you can and somehow get to a level at which you know what people are talking about. She also asked how long the various authors had dedicated to those subjects. I conjured a figure of 15 years. Trembling with indignation, she demanded to know how she was supposed to criticise them after a couple of days’ reading? The ways in which we encourage 18-year-olds to say that Adam Smith was an idiot or Immanuel Kant got everything wrong do not translate easily into other cultures. Universities are far more attuned now to this kind of cultural distance than they were in my day, but there will always be problems.

Towards the end of my career, I wrote a book about amateurism. One of its arguments is that there are roles and occasions when the amateur, the concerned human being with no concentrated training, functions better than the specialist professional. The latter are limited by career ambitions, doctrinal orthodoxies and excessive earnestness. There is a strong tendency for professionalism in all spheres to turn human issues into technical ones with artificially clear rules and procedures. I think these arguments sometimes apply to counselling and to the personal tutor role.

These days, I’m seldom asked by a younger person for my advice, but I’m pleased that I had this role. Maybe my enthusiasm for the pastoral role had a cost in terms of research. But would I rather have an additional article (“cited by 17” but actually read by only five) to my name or have people, whether members of the House of Lords or not, saying nice things about me 50 years down the line?

 New pilot training with a blindfold on

Lincoln Allison is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Warwick.

‘What makes the personal tutor system special is that word “personal” – it involves a relationship that is not just based on asking for help with a particular problem’

If you ever visit Heidelberg, one of the unmissable places to see is the student prison, a suite of rooms covered in graffiti where students who misbehaved were locked up for a spell.

One William Howitt wrote a book in the 19th century about German students who, he claimed, spent their time not studying but in drunkenness and fighting. In lieu of any kind of pastoral care from their tutors, many of them acquired large dogs that could take them home when incapacitated or stand guard over them if they fell in a gutter, so drawings of dogs abound on the prison walls. Howitt viewed this behaviour as unique to German students, but the history of student life from the ancient Greeks to the 21st century suggests otherwise.

In today’s university world, pastoral care has become an important aspect of student life in many countries. Going to university is no longer a move into adulthood. Instead, universities are increasingly seen as operating in loco parentis, all the more so since many parents are footing huge bills for fees and accommodation and want to see how their money is being spent. In the UK, universities now cater for whole families at open days, and it is not uncommon for parents to get on the phone to protest about the marks their child has received and to check up on their progress. I watched this happen gradually at first, before it accelerated over the past two decades.

Although there was initial resistance to the corresponding rise of pastoral care, the need for it is now widely recognised – and probably never more so than in 2022, after two years of massive disruption because of Covid restrictions. We have all heard horror stories of students who went to university full of excitement and enthusiasm, only to end up isolated, often lonely and with teaching reduced to a few hours via a computer screen. One of the catastrophic consequences of Covid has been the damage inflicted on the student community, through the loss of social contacts they might have made, the informal exchanges in corridors and over coffee, the kind of learning that comes from meeting other people and sitting down with their lecturers to talk outside the formal structure of the lecture or seminar. 

Support for students has become big business, and universities offer advice on all kinds of issues, including mental health, culture shock, homesickness, exam stress, financial difficulties, disabilities and medical care more generally. A check of websites shows that some offer advice on responsible drinking and drug-related problems. Mindfulness workshops are widely available. In the UK, there is now an annual student mental health day. What is interesting is the extent to which such help appears to be professionalised. Some universities state that they have a team of expert staff able to provide safe and confidential advice to any student who needs their help.

While this is a positive step, it is not the same as the personal tutor system, because personal tutors are not professional carers: they are academics, people a student might see in the corridor any day of the week. Some universities highlight this on their web pages. Newcastle University, for example, states that students will be allocated a personal tutor, who “will support you throughout your time with us”. There is even a student-driven league table of the UK universities providing students with the best personal tutor system.

What makes the personal tutor system special is that word “personal”. It involves a relationship between two people that is not just based on asking for help with a particular problem. The personal tutor is someone with whom a student can chat over coffee or something stronger, about issues that are sometimes only vaguely formulated. Only after talking with a personal tutor can some students identify whether they need more specialised advice; personal tutors can join the dots across what are often good but not necessarily linked-up support systems within an institution.

Of course, personal tutors can, and frequently do, refer students to specialist help, but often what is needed most is an informal meeting and a conversation. Over the years, my personal tutees have shared all kinds of things with me, from photos of family weddings and other joyous occasions to distress because parents are getting divorced or a beloved old dog has died. Some students have talked to me about religious issues, others about sex and identity issues. Most recently, two students have wanted to talk about the war in Ukraine and their fears for their families and friends. If students have a personal tutor they can trust, often sharing concerns with that person can help them stay on track.

Earlier this year, I went back to the University of Glasgow for the first time since lockdown began. It was a very moving experience: some of my PhD and MPhil students were so glad to be able finally to sit down and talk face to face that they turned up with bunches of flowers and little gifts, and our conversations went far beyond the topics of their research. That kind of personal contact is what makes providing pastoral care for students so important for them and so rewarding for those of us who take the trouble to provide it.

Susan Bassnett is professor of comparative literature at the University of Glasgow.

‘Can we stop caring when it all becomes too much? Where is the support for personal tutors?’

If you had asked me to describe the role of a personal tutor prior to Covid, I would have struggled. But now I can sum it up in one metaphor: plate spinning.

Through the “Covid coma”, we were Zoom-linked anchors for our students. Our disembodied heads tried to convey concern for their problems, even as most of us felt as much at sea as they did. We were like swans, our perceived serenity belied by all the unseen paddling we were doing off-screen to keep ourselves going.

With students and colleagues now back on campus, I sometimes wonder when things will get easier. But while we’re back to business as usual in some areas, I don’t think we will return to the loose and informal approach to pastoral support we adopted pre-pandemic. It is clearer than ever that a personal tutor can make a crucial difference to the student experience on many fronts, so the more attentive style of support seems here to stay. The good news is that measurable outcomes are easier to track as well, so institutions are now more aware of the role’s importance.

My research into tutoring makes clear that approaches to it differ according to personality and subject. However, I found three prominent archetypes. The “hero” seeks to single-handedly hold together the course and the student whatever the stresses they face in their own lives. They teach postgraduates as well as undergraduates, have high course numbers and feel personally responsible for everything and everyone on their course.

Another archetype, the “nurturer”, offers a warm virtual hug and empathy on the more vocational courses, while the “professional” acts as a role model, encouraging student independence by taking a less involved “coach” role. 

It is evident, however, that whatever their intention, personal tutors are limited in what they can offer students. One limit is the value (or lack of it) placed on the role by institutions. Senior managers may increasingly acknowledge the difference the personal approach can make to students facing confusing and challenging circumstances, but a heavy burden is imposed on individuals when “just ask your personal tutor” is the go-to response for most student support needs.

New plates are constantly being thrown at us. We have to support students with an ever-increasing range and complexity of mental health issues and family traumas, for instance. More and more and more. We do it because we care. But can we stop caring when it all becomes too much? Where is the support for personal tutors? Universities do try, but their efforts sometimes feel tokenistic.

The inevitable result is overwhelmed personal tutors trying against all odds to develop meaningful relationships with students while retaining an authentic sense of self. As in other caring yet commodified professions, such as policing and nursing, emotional fatigue and maybe even burnout will ensue.

When our students graduate, personal tutors sometimes receive flowers, chocolate and tearful words of thanks. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” some will say.

I used to automatically respond, “Of course you could!” – but now, to be honest, I seriously doubt that this is true.

Annabel Yale is a senior lecturer in early years education at Edge Hill University. Her research features in The Higher Education Personal Tutor’s and Advisor’s Companion (Critical Publishing), published in March 2022.


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Reader's comments (2)

Personal tutoring is one of the most pleasurable bits of being an academic - and one of the most scary! My background helps, I taught in a sixth form college for many years before slithering into academia and they do take personal tutoring seriously and train their staff in how to do it. So I have been able to translate skills developed for dealing with 16-19 year old students to the slightly older ones that present themselves in my office these days. I also have the advantage of being ancient (and female), being a kind of 'Department Mom' that even students who aren't mine feel happy coming to talk to. So, what do I do? Above all, LISTEN to them. Then point them in the right directions, support them in whatever they are trying to accomplish. Take ownership of problems - I'm often heard to say that I have no idea about the issue they've brought up but I'll find the answer, then scuttle off and find it, and get back to them. The key thing is to take an interest in these youngsters.
Most universities expect personal tutors to offer pastoral care, and increasingly academic staff are expected to undergo a range of training across various disciplines to do that job. No longer just academic tutoring.


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