Private tuition at universities

There’s an interesting piece in the FT about the apparently rapid growth of private tutoring for university students. Some of my former colleagues now at the Department of Land Economy in Cambridge ended up doing a customised one-to-one course for Prince William! I know of a professor in one university who has done some very well-paid tutoring for a student from an affluent Middle Eastern country. I did some back in the early 1990s when I was a postgrad student for someone who needed to re-sit a valuation exam.

In the FT article, a law tutor identified three types of requirement.

The first comprises those who simply find the volume of material covered, and the pace, overwhelming. The second is a group who need occasional help understanding legal concepts. Then there are the undergraduates who seek advice on one-off assignments, an essay or dissertation. They might understand the material but struggle to assemble a clear, well-structured argument.

I suspect that demand for individual support will continue to grow. It seems to be part of a wider growth in individual tutoring in education. Nearly every middle class kid in Northern Ireland has had, is having or will have a moonlighting teacher coach them for the 11+. It also seems to be part of a broader shift towards customised services – personal trainers, life coaches etc.

Although private tutoring can be part of the educational culture in many overseas countries, An article in the Observer last Sunday showed how prevalent it is in the UK.

The proportion of tutored pupils has risen by more than a third over the past decade, from 18% in 2005 to 25% now. In London, 44% of pupils had private or home tuition last year, compared with 34% in 2005.

I suspect every valuation lecturer has been asked by their own and external students about private tuition. The ‘elephant in the room’ is the implication that university lecturers aren’t doing their job properly.  These students feel that they need additional support from universities and are unable to access it. It raises difficult issues and I have conflicting views.

Universities simply don’t have adequate resources to provide one-to-one support on a large scale. Even Oxbridge colleges can struggle to provide ‘supervisions’. In my view, there seems to be an element of displacement activity on some student’s part.  Rather than try to sort out the problem independently or, even, identify what they don’t understand, students see private tuition as having made an effort. I find it frustrating when I asked students to be specific about what they do and don’t understand and they won’t do it. I suspect that it is too much effort to identify the areas that they struggle with.  However, I also know that one-to-one support can quickly and effectively help get over short-term blockages. Like the heathcare sector, there are issues of supply-induced demand. Once you start to offer the service, everyone will feel that they should have it.

At the moment we’re pretty far from a ‘shadow education system’ in the UK but this feels like a growth area.


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