Cry for help from tutor 'counsellors'

March 16, 2007

The burden of pastoral care has risen considerably in recent years and is now too great for many academics to cope with. Becky McCall reports

Fascinated by life in the deep sea, Tim Miles felt that entering academe was the best way of pursuing his interest. He was motivated by a desire to push back the boundaries of his chosen field, less so by lecturing and tutoring. But he accepted that they were part and parcel of the deal.

Nothing prepared him, however, for the day when there was a knock on the office door from a distressed 21-year-old final-year student. She was so ill with an eating disorder that he feared she might have only a few months left to live.

Pastoral care for students was integral to his faculty position, but this was something else.

"I remember that she had a particular trivial issue with how and when to cite references in her essay, and I had to explain the same thing over and over again. It just wasn't going in.

"I knew the essay wasn't the problem at all - she was painfully ill, she had severe anorexia, and mentally she wasn't functioning as she should. But I just couldn't go there with her, I didn't know where to start," said Dr Miles (who asked us to use a pseudonym to prevent the possible identification of the student involved).

The burden and nature of student care has grown considerably over recent years. Student-to-staff ratios have increased dramatically and the expansion of student numbers, combined with widening participation, is introducing students from a broader range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

More and more students require an increased level of personal and emotional support.

Many tutors feel they are ill-prepared to meet the escalating demands of the role. As Dr Miles explained: "The student didn't need the university or me. She needed someone who knew what they were doing."

Roger Kline, head of employment at the University and College Union, said that, of course, most academics recognised that looking out for their students' general wellbeing was an integral part of the job, and was often an extremely rewarding one, too.

"Providing the whole range of academic and pastoral support is part of the job," he said. "But as student-to-staff ratios worsen and workloads increase, academics find it increasingly hard to find the quality time to give the support that is needed. And the nature of some of the problems that students can have means that being a good listener, or dishing out common-sense advice may not be enough."

Over the past three decades, the number of students to each staff member has risen more than 100 per cent. In the mid-Seventies, each staff member had an average of 8.6 students. This figure climbed to 19.2 in 2002-03 and in 2005-06 slipped down to 16.8, reflecting a change in how the figure was reported.

Serena Heckler is an anthropology research fellow at Kent University and a former lecturer and tutor at Durham University. She said that universities failed to recognise that successful tutoring required time, energy and resources.

"In an ideal world, the university would have to acknowledge the need for time and support and incorporate this into the workload. Workload calculates contact hours with postgraduate supervision, for example, but there is no time allotted for tutoring," Dr Heckler said.

Negotiating the emotional difficulties of distressed students takes its toll on the tutor, too. "Some students would come to me repeatedly with very serious problems that I would spend hours listening, leaving me exhausted and unable to concentrate for hours afterwards. When I mentioned this to senior staff, they just dismissed it and said I was spending too much time with them."

Directing students with particularly serious problems to the university's counselling services is standard procedure, but some believe the systems in place are not always effective.

At a previous university, Dr Heckler said she referred one very distressed student, who had lost his entire family in the Sri Lankan civil war, to both the university and National Health Service counselling services.

However, the student had to wait a term before seeing anyone, so he found himself back in Dr Heckler's office again. "I just cannot shut the door on these people. Am I supposed to say: 'Sorry, I just don't have the time for you, I need to get back to my staff review/ Hera analysis/quality audit/RAE report?'" she said.

Nicky Stanley, professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire, published an in-depth study on student suicide in the UK. She said: "The higher education population has expanded and in many ways has grown to resemble the general population more closely. The role of the personal tutor has changed in the face of expanding numbers, and much has been achieved with the development of student support services. However, some commentators feel that these services haven't expanded to keep pace with demand. Those managing student services would tell you that demand is very high."

Many universities still split tutoring responsibilities between academic tutors and personal tutors responsible for pastoral care. But increasingly both academic and personal tutoring roles are being merged, and academic problems are often a front for an underlying personal issue.

For Paul Jackson, head of student services at Leicester University, tutors - academic or pastoral - do an excellent job in picking up on student difficulties.

"Tutors already have the skills needed to engage actively in dialogue with the students, and proper counselling skills aren't so dissimilar," he said.

"Academic problems are often manifestations of a personal issue."

Tutors need to know where boundaries of personal tutoring lie. There are those who would rather keep a safe distance from personal issues, those who strike the right balance and refer serious cases on to specialists, and those who become over-involved and suffer themselves as a consequence.

"We wouldn't expect academics to know how to handle dyslexia or, necessarily, difficulties in connecting to the curriculum, but they can refer on to the right person. However, this relies on effective communication between departments," Mr Jackson said.

Ian Smith, head of division of information management at De Montfort University, Leicester, said that his university was an example of best practice. At De Montfort, they do not allocate personal tutors to students until after they have spent some time informally mixing during the first week.

"We used to allocate tutors before arrival but have found that it is much better to spend a week breaking the ice," Mr Smith said.

Once assigned a tutor, each student is given a personal development plan, which is used to track their academic and personal progression twice a year. De Montfort also has an electronic system of monitoring attendance.

Regular review enables tutors to address any underlying issues.

While such good practice is likely to spread with an increase in guidance, notably from the Higher Education Academy's Professional Standards Framework for new staff, Dr Smith was quick to get to the heart of the matter - time. "We are very lucky here because personal tutoring is taken seriously, and we are granted 40 hours in the timetable for this role," he said.

LOST CAUSE

WHEN A PROBLEM ENDS IN TRAGEDY

"She was an intense girl and sometimes when I was lecturing I could see she was troubled - she looked pale and frightened," said Susan Smith, describing how she first came to realise that one of her students was in difficulty.

As her tutor on an intensive, taught postgraduate course, Dr Smith was deeply concerned. When it emerged that the student, Mary, was unable to deal with one assignment because it touched on an experience she had been through, Dr Smith told her she ought to see the student counsellor.

Mary, however, had tried a counsellor once before, during her undergraduate degree, and it hadn't worked for her, so she was reluctant. Mary visited the student counsellor only once. "You can guide a student towards the counselling service, but if they refuse to take that, there's not a lot you can do," Dr Smith said.

Over the Christmas break, when Mary was doing work experience, she called her tutor and asked to meet.

"She said she was having problems," Dr Smith said. "We met twice for about an hour each time. She told me she had a history of eating disorders and self-harm and had been hospitalised. I could see that she needed psychiatric help."

Dr Smith decided that she had to talk to Mary's parents about the situation, and asked for her permission. They kept in touch over the coming months.

Back at university, Mary began to see a consultant psychiatrist and, when she felt bad, the emergency psychiatrist. Worried for her, Dr Smith asked to see her every day.

"She would pop into my office, sometimes for ten minutes, sometimes more.

It was an additional pressure, but I felt I had to monitor how she was.

"A lot of times I and a colleague who also tutored on the course were acting as counsellors."

Mary called Dr Smith and her colleague out of hours several times, and they visited her in her halls.

"As a lecturer, I have no training in counselling - and nor should I have - but I felt there was little else I could do. She had rejected the counselling service, and the local mental health services could not provide help when she needed it."

Dr Smith last saw Mary just hours before she died. "She had been funny and cracking jokes," she said. "When I found out she had killed herself, I was devastated. I knew she had suicidal tendencies, but didn't really think she would carry it out."

Rebecca Attwood The names in this article have been changed to avoid distress to others.

POTENTIAL UNLOCKED

HOW A PRISONER TURNS SCHOLAR

The demands of dealing with the emotional baggage of convicted criminals are far outweighed by the rewards brought by teaching them, according to Elizabeth Mullett of the Open University, who is responsible for 200 students in prisons in the south of England.

On the subject of pastoral care, she said: "It's an area of our work that we love.

"I would say our tutors offer over and above the level of support they need to."

The prison environment is far from conducive to learning, and many students have disrupted academic histories and low self-esteem, she said.

"Many of the students have not had the opportunity to access higher education before, and no qualifications whatsoever, but have progressed to higher education from the education they've received in prison. Others are extremely well educated and are desperate to have something constructive to do.

"Often, students are physically moved around the system to different prisons - we try to ensure continuity. Prisons are very noisy places.

Another problem is attention from other prisoners. Studying is sometimes seen as a 'soft option' by other prisoners, who think students get special privileges," she said.

Tutors have regular one-to-one meetings with their students to help them through their course.

"Some tutors find the one-to-one contact more demanding, when they are perhaps used to larger tutorial groups.

"Very frequently, tutors are supporting students who haven't had much encouragement in life. Many are unconfident and unsure of their ability to study at this level."

The hard work, however, pays off on degree presentation day. Students who complete their courses have new-found confidence and skills that they hope will help them to overcome the problems of their past, she said.

"The skills that higher education courses teach are skills that can help them to overcome difficulties in securing employment. And students in prison often perform slightly better academically, which is interesting," she said.

"For our tutors, it is about working with someone who has very few options in life, who is in an environment that is intentionally limiting, and seeing the efforts these students make to overcome all this.

"It is the sense of achievement," she said.

Rebecca Attwood

HOW TO SPOT A STUDENT IN DIFFICULTIES

Tutors are often in a prime position to know when a student is running into personal difficulties. The key, however, is spotting a problem in time: academic difficulties may mask a more serious personal problem.

Much pastoral care relies on common sense, but occasionally it helps to spell it out. Here are some questions to help you spot if a student has personal difficulties: n Is the student's behaviour cause for concern? Is he or she missing classes, failing to complete coursework, socially isolated?

* How does the student appear? Tense/irritable, behaving erratically, withdrawn, disinhibited or talking incoherently?

* Is the student trying to talk to you about his or her problem?

* Have other staff or the warden noticed problems?

* If any of the above are notably different from your previous experience with the student, then you may need to seek more information from the student, from other staff or the student's friends. It may be helpful to talk to your own line manager or student support services.

Further questions to help discover a problem:

* How does the student feel?

* Has she or he had a problem in the past?

* Simply: is there something wrong?

Adapted from Leicester University's Supporting Students in Difficulty: A Guide for Staff.

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