Counselling and careers advice must become as much of a priority in universities as teaching and research, according to a Department for Education and Employment briefing paper, writes Phil Baty.
The paper, Supporting Learner Autonomy, said that all guidance services which help students to "relate their learning to their lives", such as careers advice, mentoring, counselling and personal tutoring, must become "more central to institutional processes and priorities".
Diverse services which the paper defines as "guidance" should be pooled into something more coherent, attract more resources and perhaps even be made a compulsory part of learning programmes.
"The learning society depends on autonomous individuals, able to manage their lifelong learning and working careers efficiently and confidently," said the paper's author Stephen McNair, a DFEE advisor. "This requires a judicious balance of services, on one hand to help learners to develop skills of self management, and on the other to help them to make immediate decisions about learning and work. These services must be seen as a whole, and central to the purposes of higher education."
Guidance in universities is "very variable in quality and quantity, and often unevenly distributed," the paper found. Increased student numbers had left provision "incoherent and haphazard".
Academic staff should take guidance much more seriously, it said. Plans to include guidance provision in promotion criteria, or to allocate time formally to tutorial and counselling services, should be considered, "making it clear that this is not an additional function to the mainstream business of the institution".
The paper also said: "It is important to consider the resourcing of guidance functions as a coherent whole, asking not about the cost of a particular element in isolation, but in the overall context." It added that expenditure on guidance may need to be increased.
Institutions might also consider adopting practices where "guidance modules" are made compulsory. "Significantly, student evaluation of such modules consistently found that those who had taken guidance modules advocated making them compulsory for all students," it said.