The personal tutor system itself is what’s broken

When searching the University of Edinburgh website, the page labelled ‘My Personal Tutor’ speaks of “a member of academic staff who will support you throughout your time at the university, giving you academic support and a route to pastoral support.” This seems like a straightforward description of a figure who is meant to play a key role in a student’s time at university.

This definition seems to be a rose-tinted version of the experiences of many students within the personal tutor system at this university. Upon speaking to several students anonymously at the University of Edinburgh, the problems the system has failed to address became obvious.

Incidents ranged from concerning to downright comical. One student detailed being told “some exercise and perhaps getting a bike for fresh air” would be a good way to prevent terrible homesickness upon moving away from home for the first time, with no follow up contact. This is a story they admit they openly laugh about now, but certainly did not at the time. Another spoke of seeking advice on support for essays from a personal tutor, upon which the tutor proceeded to agree with them that the university lacks sufficient support in this department.

Other examples included a French student seeking advice from her personal tutor as to where to pick for their year abroad program due to the overwhelming number of options. The tutor in question passed her on to another contact who simply never replied to communication attempts. There was even one case in which a student found themselves for several months actually unsure who their personal tutor was due to a complicated switch over mid-way through the year. These stories resonate all too clearly with an image so many students relate to, a vulnerable young person who needs support, whether or not they are willing to actively seek this.

From such a small number of examples, numerous issues are raised with a system that does not really appear to be working to the best of its ability, for anybody. Though many feel disgruntled and let down by the lack of support they receive, the problem ultimately lies largely not with the tutors themselves but the system under which they work. Tutors are under strain. They have so many students to attend to with so many different needs.

The expectation for them to remember everybody or come up with new innovative advice every time is unreasonable. Time constraints remain a major issue, with many humanities students finding allocated 20-minute sessions per semester inadequate. These tutors are often lecturers, course organisers and/or studying themselves. Being a personal tutor is just a small part of their job description, they cannot be ultimately expected to act as a ‘guardian angel’ type figure for every student that walks through their door.

Once again we must focus on how underfunded the counselling service is. Certainly there is greater need for more initiatives like Nightline. This need has left students too reliant on tutors who are constrained time wise and inadequately trained in mental health to provide what students are seeking.

The personal tutor system is supposed to be a solution for young, vulnerable adults who still need guidance at a complicated time in their life. It is time to look beyond the individual tutors themselves and question exactly why there is so much demand for them to provide support. There is also the question of why the current system is failing both those unable to provide the help, as well as those seeking it.



Image: Manvir Dobb 

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The Student Newspaper 2016