Fear of growing inequalities as better-off buy extra help

September 21, 2007

One-to-one assistance from a personal tutor is part of the education experience for more and more students - but at what cost? Amy Binns reports

Alpha Tutors, one of the UK's leading private tuition agencies, is gearing up for another leap in applications from struggling undergraduates in the coming term.

The firm, which is based in London and Carlisle, already provides tutors for 31,000 students nationwide - including about 3,000 at degree level.

Benjamin Wyllie, its account manager, said university-level business had grown by 40 per cent over the past two years.

"There's been a big uptake over the past couple of years. People who had private tuition at A levels are just continuing with it when they get into difficulties at university," he said.

The spread of broadband and cheap webcams is also leading to more online tuition using video-conferencing techniques, which helps match tutors with the relevant expertise to students. It's also cheaper - Alpha Tutors charges Pounds 25 an hour for online tutoring instead of the standard £30 for face-to-face work.

Mr Wyllie said he was expecting a major increase in this sector in the next academic term.

"When students are investing a lot of money in tuition fees, they really have to push themselves in exams, and a little bit of extra help may be very worthwhile.

"Our busiest time is always in the run-up to exams, but you can't improve someone's performance in two weeks."

Mr Wyllie said many students struggled where there were large class sizes. "I don't think today's university students get the personal attention they got 20 years ago.

"That's not the fault of universities, it's just the result of numbers. Private tuition redresses the balance."

Mr Wyllie said that the academic standards of their tutors were very high because the firm has a self-styled "elitist" recruitment policy, by invitation only.

Amid criticism that some of the less scrupulous agencies may be offering more than just additional teaching, Mr Wyllie insists that his tutors draw a firm line between teaching students and providing any unfair assistance, for example with summative coursework.

But just how fine that line can become is well known to Pat Hill, an academic skills tutor giving official one-to-one help at Huddersfield University.

She aims to help students develop their own "voice" and learn to correct their own work, but she admits that they often expect more. "When a student comes to me, he or she wants help with a particular piece of coursework," she said.

"They want me to proofread it and correct it. Some students don't come back when they realise I'm not going to do that. I am very scrupulous, but for a lot of paid-for tutors their success depends on results and recommendations.

"If you have got that kind of pressure, it's hard to keep that dividing line between helping them and doing it for them."

She said many parents also acted as unofficial tutors for their students at degree level, when there is even more temptation to blur the boundary.

One woman handed her company's professionally prepared press releases to her daughter to submit as coursework for her public relations degree.

Ms Hill said: "The world's not fair, and people will get help wherever they can. It does mean, however, that class and money are even more of a feature in our higher education system. It makes it even less of a level playing field for non-traditional students who don't have the background or the money to get this extra help."

Malcolm Keight, head of higher education at the University College Union, said the rise of private tuition in higher education showed that students were increasingly isolated from their universities.

"It's a sad reflection of the fact that the commodification of higher education is taking away from the sense of academic community. That is being eroded."

Mr Keight said he questioned what students were getting for their money: "No two university courses are the same, and tutors don't all teach subjects in the same way. Using a tutor from outside the university may mean trying to mix and match forms of provision that may not be compatible."

He also doubted that private tutors' academic standards could be above suspicion. He said: "Whose academic standards? They are drawn up as part of the course design and provision, and if tutors are not part of that how can they know what they are?"

Amy Binns is a journalism lecturer at Huddersfield University.


As a mature student, Emily Jones never expected to use private tuition when she started her modern languages degree at a post-92 institution, but soon found lack of time with academic staff meant she had no choice if she wanted to keep up.

Ms Jones (not her real name) had no knowledge of her major subject, Italian, but was assured that accelerated learning in the first year brought beginners up to scratch.

In fact, this consisted largely of CDs and books and very little tutorial time. She was the only complete beginner, so the large, mixed-ability classes weren't much help.

She said: "The books jumped so quickly I couldn't even understand what I was reading.

"I employed a private tutor and she helped me through the first year.

"I thought the second year wouldn't be so difficult, but we went from asking for a cup of coffee to having whole conversations.

"It was so intense. If your life got busy or you were ill, you couldn't catch up."

The tutors were good but too busy to spend a long time on one subject just because one person didn't understand, Ms Jones said.

"The problem for most people was the oral - we didn't have people to interact with.

"We were all getting good at the written work because we were reading, but the oral was out of our league."

Ms Jones continued with private tuition through Fleet Tutors throughout her second year and will probably continue into her third.

She said: "I do it online. It's costing a lot of money, £200 per month for two sessions a week, but I need it."

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