'We have to be all things to all people'

June 1, 2007

Academics are under pressure to meet the ever-increasing expectations of students, parents, ministers and others, reports Lindsey Neville, while, opposite, two undergraduates give their verdict on the teaching they receive

The rising numbers of students entering higher education since the UK introduced its widening participation agenda in 1992 have created an academic community different from the one my contemporaries and I experienced in the 1970s.

At that time, my personal tutor had a commitment to six students. My colleagues are more likely to have 24 personal students - many of whom will come from socially disadvantaged or non-traditional backgrounds, may have no experience of traditional study methods and may have a variety of other commitments including caring responsibilities and part-time work (Mairead Owen, 2002). The pastoral support needs of this diverse group create pressures and challenges for personal tutors.

A report on the impact of increasing levels of psychological disturbance among students by the Heads of University Counselling Services in 1999 identified a lack of recognition on the part of the Department for Education and Skills of the resource implications of widening access to higher education for those from socially disadvantaged groups. This has particular significance in the light of the Department of Health's report in 1998 highlighting increased rates of poor mental health among socially disadvantaged young people.

Alongside the evolving legislative framework, Universities UK has highlighted institutions' moral duty to minimise potential risks to their students. The same research acknowledges the importance of frontline academic staff, who are likely to be the first people to spot a student in distress. Their regular contact with the student might allow them to detect changes in appearance or behaviour.

A report by Ronald Roberts et al in 2000 found links between poor student financing and psychological ill health. A further report found that one in four students admitted they were in financial difficulty, and it established links between financial problems and debt, and mental and physical ill health.

Much of the burden of supporting these students has fallen on academics, who are charged with supporting learning within potentially complex situations. All this has taken its toll on lecturers, who are concerned about the appropriateness of taking up the role of personal tutor. Opinions range from eschewing any involvement to finding it to be one of the most rewarding aspects of their work. There is also recognition of the difficulties posed by the conflicts between personal and academic support.

As the sector develops, expectations of the role of the personal tutor continue to change. These expectations require that tutors accept responsibility for ensuring that the delivery of our lecture content is accessible to all. There also appears to be a need and an unspoken expectation that we ensure students are in a fit emotional state to learn.

The introduction of tuition fees in 1998 launched a market in higher education, and with the Government due to review the £3,000 cap on fees in England in 2009 it looks likely that the cost to students will increase. During the lecturers' pay dispute of 2006, we saw evidence that students were becoming more litigious and pursuing claims for damages. As this market expands, students will inevitably develop a number of criteria for assessing value for money.

Raising fees, while widening participation, has expanded the range of activities expected of academic staff - we now need to be all things to all people. Our universities want us to generate income through research and partnerships with industry, and to retain a high profile for the institution by writing books and articles. In common with many other professions, we are also required to accept responsibility for increasing levels of administration. Our students rightly expect us to be effective teachers as well as undertaking a range of other supporting roles from counsellor to careers adviser. The Government places on us the extra responsibility of equipping tomorrow's workforce with all the transferable skills that they might need.

This seemingly limitless nature of the relationship between tutor and tutee can add to existing stresses, which Ann Edworthy (2002) identified as being prevalent in higher education. The burdens of heavy workloads, poor communication, constant changes, challenging interpersonal relationships, insufficient support or lack of resources are compounded by role ambiguity, which occurs when a worker is expected to perform his or her duties without receiving adequate details about the scope and responsibilities of the job.

Personal tutoring would seem to fall into this category. It is therefore hardly surprising that the TUC reported last year that "workplace stress and nerve-fraying workloads have made nearly half of lecturers ill".

Lindsey Neville is senior lecturer in community and social welfare, University of Worcester, and editor of The Personal Tutor's Handbook (Palgrave Macmillan).

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