Higher Education with its increasing focus and investment in support of the student experience has at times, dare I say it, overlooked the investment in staff necessary to ensure that they are able to perform effectively in both the academic and pastoral support of the students in their care. Across the country, contracts have been rewritten in light of the inherent need for enhanced support for students and in the main, these changes have included reference to an immediate need to address and take responsibility for their welfare. However, formal training and support for academics performing in this capacity is either non-existent or patchy at best, and often at an extreme deficit when compared with the training and formal support provided for professional service teams with a responsibility for student support.
Some of this distinction lay historically embedded in terms of the professional disjoint between staff who are primarily academics, heavily invested in research and subject discipline knowledge dissemination, but who alongside that activity also perform a pastoral and academic signposting role, versus that of our trained professional service teams who are often formally qualified to perform specific functions in direct support of students’ health, wellbeing and professional skills development (including student support units, academic skills development teams, library service staff and employability developers to name just a few). There is a big distinction, and the training deficit is immediately apparent when considering the differing levels in confidence when dealing with the complexity of pastoral and academic issues that our students present us with.
So, having recently made the move to join the Centre for Professional Learning and Development team at Nottingham Trent University, I was delighted to have been successful in a Seedcorn funding application from the Trent Institute of Learning and Teaching (TILT) to lead on a project in this area. The need for staff support in relation to the role of tutoring is an issue that has come up repeatedly in my dealings with both students and academics alike across a number of institutions; with students complaining about the ability of academics to deal effectively with the issues that they are facing, and academics expressing concern and anxiety over their preparedness and ability with which to handle these issues. This apparent mismatch needs to be managed efficiently through a combined approach of addressing staff training and student expectations of the pastoral role if both parties are able to get the support and development that they need to perform effectively.
At Nottingham Trent University the current expectation, as formalised within academic roles and contracts, is that staff will be able to signpost students appropriately to the services that they need. In reality though, students will want to share their problems, often in graphic detail (and sometimes whether we like it or not!), as they come to trust us and have faith in our ability to help them. It is worth taking a moment to recognise this for the honour that it is, particularly in light of our individual capacity to inspire trust – welcomed or not. No one is in a more powerful position to help a student, than those at the immediate front-line, the academic and professional staff that teach them. Recognition, reward and training in relation to the personal tutor role is long overdue in this respect.
That said, add that to the increasingly complex demands faced by academics in the current HE climate, with student numbers going up and the associated increase in teaching commitments and marking, coupled with the growth in administrative responsibilities alongside pressures to publish, there is no wonder that academics are feeling the strain and intensity of these competing demands when it comes to providing quality pastoral care. As student engagement and the student experience have become an area of significant Higher Education investment in recent years, largely in response to the demands presented by the current metrics-driven HE economy, the pressure to perform pastorally has taken its toll through the weight of expectation for ensuring that we retain students and the associated responsibility for ensuring their progression. All of that on top of the day job, and this position is only set to become heightened with the imminently approaching Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
With all of this in mind, my own interest lies in how we can best support our front-line staff to perform effectively in a tutoring, mentoring and coaching capacity. So how do we support our staff to survive and thrive, as they support their own students to stay the course? As a keen advocate for student engagement initiatives, I really do value institutional approaches that invest energy in providing a rich and supportive home community for its students, and I am fortunate to have worked at two UK HE institutions (Birmingham City & Nottingham Trent) that really do engage in student partnership and collaborative design in this respect. However, it is one thing to design exciting projects and activities to enhance student engagement (see the Level Up Transition Mentoring programme I designed at Birmingham City University for instance), but it is another consideration entirely when thinking about the training and professional development needs of the academics, administrative and support staff who will be expected to perform in the roles that we create for them.
The TILT funding is being used to research, develop and plan one such training programme for staff at Nottingham Trent University, with the aim of offering staff who are expected to deliver in these roles, the appropriate training and development opportunities in order to ensure that they are adequately prepared and confident to do so. Academics are by their very nature specialist in their professional and respective fields, however if we are to ensure that they are able to cope with the additional pressures of academic and pastoral support provision, we need to ensure that they are ready for the job in hand. This innovation for future tutors initiative, led jointly by Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Professional Learning and Development and our Students’ Union, represents a collaborative partnership between the Centre for Academic Development and Quality, our Student Services and Library teams as well as our data-handling Student Dashboard team. It is anticipated that both our staff and students will benefit, with tutors receiving the training that they need in order to perform effectively in these pastoral and academic roles, and with students getting the help that they need in order to stay and succeed at Nottingham Trent University.
In line with the NTU Strategic Plan ambition for creating the university of the future, this collaborative approach to developing the future tutor empowers our existing tutors with next generation skills, equipping them for the complex and competing demands of quality pastoral and academic support and providing credit and accolade where it is due. With the burden of responsibility for a personalised approach to the student experience, the need for student retention and the induction and integration of students into higher education falling at the feet of personal tutors across the HE sector, the next significant step is to invest in the training and stewardship of these roles so that they too can survive and thrive if they are to continue to perform as super dooper future tutors.
Myself and Jelena Matic NTSU VP Education will be presenting our collaborative approach to the development of tutor training at the SEDA Annual Conference in Brighton (November 2016). Hope to engage in some further collaborative conversations there.