Private tuition booms

September 21, 2007

Better-off undergraduates gain advantage as contact time shrinks and class sizes grow. Amy Binns reports

Undergraduates are increasingly turning to private tutors, according to tutoring agencies, amid concerns that they are ill-prepared for higher education and are not getting enough support from their universities.

A number of agencies this week told The Times Higher that there has been a leap in demand for their services, corresponding to a growth in their popularity at school level.

One of the biggest UK firms, Alpha Tutors, reports a 40 per cent increase in the number of undergraduates using its services in the past two years, to 3,000. Fleet Tutors said that undergraduate numbers had doubled to 200 in a year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students are also making private arrangements with individuals, so the full extent of the practice is not clear.

The issue has raised concerns that the school system is leaving students unprepared for university-level study, that better-off students are able to buy an unfair advantage and that stretched universities are failing to provide the level of teaching resources that fee-paying students expect.

Universities UK said that it was aware of growing demands from students for smaller class sizes and additional contact time, but that more resources were needed.

A UUK spokesman said: "We understand there are rising expectations with degree courses... which is why the UUK Spending Review 2007 called for continued public investment in higher education."

James Leyland, principal of Westminster Tutors, said: "The difference between A levels and university is huge and the gap is widening."

Mylene Curtis, managing director of Fleet Tutors, said that many students came for "remedial" help.

One lecturer from a post-92 institution in the Midlands said she knew of two private tutors operating in the small village where she lives. She attributed the demand for private tutors to underfunded university expansion and large classes. She said she "despairs of even remembering all [her] students' names".

"Lecturers are encouraged to focus more on producing research papers, inevitably at the expense of teaching," she said.

Bill Rammell, the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, said the National Student Survey showed that students were happy with the teaching they received, even if some did feel the need for extra help.


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