Tutorial system on the way out

March 15, 1996

Funding restrictions and the expansion in higher education participation have sounded the death knell for traditional one-on-one student tutoring, a new discussion paper warns.

The Higher Education Quality Council document, Personal Tutoring and Academic Advice, warns that the "imminent" breakdown in the personal tutoring and advice system could have serious implications for academic standards.

The document, the third in the HEQC's In Focus series, gathers case studies from six universities. Contributions from the universities of Wales, Greenwich, Liverpool John Moores, East London, Leeds and the Open University, show that systems within these institutions have had to be modified to provide effective support to students.

Vivienne Rivis of HEQC, said: "For many people, one of the distinguishing features of the British higher education system has been its emphasis on a one-to-one relationship between tutor and student, typified by the Oxbridge tutorial system on the one hand, and the teacher-learner relationship portrayed in Willy Russell's play Educating Rita, on the other.

"However, since the rapid expansion of the late 1980s, and attendant changes in the organisation and delivery of higher education, commentators have predicted, with increasing frequency, the imminent collapse of the personal tutor system."

The paper states increasing student numbers are the reason staff have little time left for traditional tutorials. It also says there is an increased need among students for specialist academic and personal services. There are also fears that this drive towards curriculum-centred support may result in underfunding of vital specialist, central support services.

The HEQC says that commonsense dictates that a student in difficulties without easy access to a tutor will be more prone to failure.


Regular tutorials formed part of every university's teaching system. Oxford and Cambridge, and some of the monotechnic institutions, still operate the intensive one-on-one or one-on-two system. Students at Oxbridge attend tutorials in all their main subjects, some as often as once a week.

Other traditional institutions hold tutorials once a week, a fortnight, or monthly, usually in small groups.

Other institutions are seeking flexibility by identifying key lecturers who take responsibility for special tutorial advice and by placing more responsibility on the students to approach tutors.

Many institutions are keen on "buddying" systems where students in upper years offer support and advice to first and second years.

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