Students will support each other if they are enabled and trusted to do so

Students increasingly say that they're lonely and lack confidence to succeed. Livia Scott warns against solutions that lay more of their success on a plate

Livia Scott is Partnerships Coordinator at Wonkhe

Back in 2021 when I was running to be an education officer in my students’ union elections, one of the manifesto promises I ran on was to improve the personal tutoring system.

It was borne out of frustration with my experience of personal academic support and the swift realisation, once I started campaigning and chatting with more students, that others were equally unimpressed.

Although some students reported great engagements with their academic tutors, others were more problematic.

Some had never met with their tutor beyond an introductory email during freshers week, with their name and email address and a vague invitation to “get in touch” if they needed anything.

Others had a well-intentioned meeting at the beginning of the year with little structure or purpose to it – that left us (and, probably, the academics) feeling awkward and even less likely to approach our tutors for support.

Another framework is coming

During my year in office, I spent a lot of time trying to work out how to fix the system.

My initial optimistic plan involved creating a framework for what a “good” personal tutoring session would look like, and encouraging students and staff to be more into the idea – but it wasn’t enough to tackle a deeper-rooted problem.

Following conversations with students, academic staff and professional services colleagues, it became clear that everyone had a different idea about the purpose of personal tutoring.

Some thought it was a purely academic role, involving reading formative essays and offering advice on study skills.

Some felt there was pressure for tutors to be de facto counsellors and offer wellbeing and mental health support – yet few felt confident taking up that role given the emotional and time burdens it placed on them.

Some felt they were like human triage – there primarily to signpost students who needed additional support to the students’ union, financial services, or international visa teams.

It quickly became clear that no one could agree on the “right way” to be a tutor. And the differences in workload, student demand and staff-student ratios made consistency difficult too.

One solution I tried involved defining tutors as “academic mentors”, in an attempt to address staff concerns with growing burdens and expectations of the role. The idea was to signal clearly that they would be there to offer academic guidance and advice, and the wellbeing aspect of the role would be fulfilled by a set of school-based wellbeing advisers that the SU had lobbied to install in each faculty.

But it didn’t deliver what I set out to achieve. I can’t say that students felt significantly better supported or more of a part of an academic community of staff and students – there was slightly less disappointment all round, and it felt marginally better than what was in place before – which is often the best that a pragmatic SU sabbatical officer is advised to hope for.

High anxiety

But two years on and reflecting further, I’ve realised I was missing a huge piece of the puzzle. I was trying to wedge a pre-existing system, created for organisations that were smaller and less complex in shape, into an institutional context that was serving a modern, diverse, and ultimately more anxious student body.

And that’s exactly what almost all universities are now grappling with – having to rethink their personal tutoring system for the complex contemporary context. That takes fresh ideas, not just tweaks around the edges. And I think it’s time to start entertaining the idea that students could play a more active peer support role in the academic support system.

That’s how it’s done in Finland, where students themselves are the tutors. Instead of having academics as the focal point of academic support, every student is assigned a tutor, usually someone in their subject in the year above them, and they become the first port of call for study tips, advice on navigating campus, as well as pastoral support. They are trained centrally by the local students union every spring, and supported by the university.

Three things are notable. The first is that student tutors facilitate students to draw on each other for support – helping them develop social learning skills and the ability to navigate formal and informal sources of support. The second is that these are quite different to some of the peer support or “buddy” schemes we often see in the UK – they are near universal and involve wider health, orientation, confidence and socialisation agendas.

And because the training in these schemes are led by students and their SU, they encourage students to confide rather than hide – and send the signal that student support is as much a shared community responsibility as it is one of the university’s administration.

We’ve seen other schemes that send similar signals on the study environment. Across Sweden there are studerandekyddsombuds (student protection officers), student reps appointed by the SU in each school whose role is to monitor everything from appropriate timetabling, lighting on campus, harassment and bullying, and disability discrimination.

They act as advocates on students’ behalf – and on our visit to Malmo last year told me that much of their work involves negotiating and representing students to academic staff on things like timely and useful feedback, ensuring learning materials are up to date and discerning why some students might be falling behind rather than just being their “voice”.

A crisis in confidence

It got me thinking about the conversations I had with students when I was an officer. I dug out some notes I’d made from a drop-in I’d done in the engineering department to chat about academic support.

Within my scribbles, I’d made a note and circled “lack of confidence” in all caps, as almost every student I spoke to referenced feeling uncomfortable going to staff with concerns. One student said that they found speaking to academics “intimidating… they’re experts in their field, I don’t want them to think I’m stupid.” Another said, “I don’t want my lecturer to know I’m struggling.”

I’ve reflected on the site before that there is a crisis in confidence amongst students at all levels – not just young undergraduates, and an associated rise in collective levels of anxiety. There is a sense that no matter how friendly they might be when you get to know them, university staff can be intimidating figures, and students aren’t sure how to approach them. This is not the fault of often overworked staff members.

In a holistic academic support system university staff, still have a vital role to play as a source of expertise, coaching, and support for complex needs – but where it’s a question of a friendly face, a sympathetic ear and a signpost to additional help, students are almost certainly more likely to be a more effective solution.

A glance through the various subreddits aimed at UK university students reveals a whole subset of students seeking answers from other students about submitting extenuating circumstances forms, how to go about deciding whether to do a placement year, or asking for help with basic study skills.

These are all things that students already do for each other – but in less supported, structured and more ad hoc ways. There is something compelling about investing a chunk of time and resources to formalise these systems so that they’re more readily available – and contribute to the creation of an academic community.

Admissions professionals have known for years that it’s peers who are key to helping prospective students to understand HE and navigate getting in. Yet often when it comes to getting on, peer support is patchy, or aimed at those identified as having a deficit. And if we need more students to take responsibility for their own learning, supporting students to do that universally is crucial.

Disclosure debates

One grey area of personal tutoring is the role it plays in cases of harassment and bullying. For instance, I remember staff raising concerns in working groups aimed to improve tutoring about feeling overwhelmed with the risks and expertise needed to handle a disclosure appropriately, with empathy and signposting a vulnerable student to the right support routes.

But research suggests that students are more likely to disclose incidents to those they are close to, usually other students. In a survey carried out amongst students in Northern Ireland, sixty-nine per cent of students who had been assaulted disclosed to a friend first. Only one student had told student wellbeing, and many students never made a formal report to their university.

It got me thinking about the support systems we’ve seen in Europe. At the Student Union of Häme University of Applied Sciences (HAMKO), two students are appointed annually by the SU’s board to serve as harassment officers. That didn’t feel like enough until we realised that every group, club and study programme association has to have two too. They advise and support students who have experienced harassment, sexual misconduct, bullying, discrimination, or other unequal treatment. They are available to talk to if students “feel that another student is being mistreated or you face a related problem you cannot solve yourself,” and are there as “someone who listens to student’s worries.” They of course are trained, and will refer on to other services if necessary.

As a safeguarding measure, national bodies organise training for these harassment officers that are run by third-party experts to ensure they are receiving support to be effective in their roles, as well as how to look after themselves during such an emotionally intense role.

The thought of allowing students to be partially in charge of dealing with disclosures and such sensitive information raised eyebrows amongst those responsible for risk-assessment writing back home. But students are already dealing with this stuff in their friendship groups, amongst flatmates or in relationships.

We know students are more likely to disclose to their peers way before they disclose to an authority figure like a personal tutor, so it surely makes sense to empower them to do this in a more structured way as part of a wider framework of student support.

They do it anyway

I could list other examples. But overall, students have always and will continue to seek support from their peers. Not all of those discussions or encounters can nor should be formalised, controlled or structured by their providers or students’ unions. But there are clearly ways that students can be supported to play a bigger role in the student support ecosystem.

Student safety officers should never replace specialised sexual violence teams, and nor should student tutors eradicate the need for personal academic support from professionals.

But with OfS bearing down on the need for better personal academic support, and a consultation response from OfS on its condition of registration around harassment and sexual misconduct set to lay out how providers can go about making the reporting and complaints process more accessible and straightforward, peer-led projects clearly have a potential part to play.

Students want to feel part of a learning community in which they both offer and seek support from each other. Working with SUs to formalise and recognise that desire will empower students to do it well.

2 responses to “Students will support each other if they are enabled and trusted to do so

  1. I’m a great believer in student peer support and one of my teams runs a scheme employing 350 students as Student Learning Assistants – embedded in the “classroom” (whatever form that takes across a range of disciplines) to support student learning. You’re right to emphasise the need for robust and comprehensive (and supportive) training for students taking on peer support roles. I’d also emphasise the need for ongoing supervision and support. Our scheme is centred on learning and supporting student learning – obviously in practice this is a more holistic experience for both students and our student learning assistants – but part of our training emphasises boundaries and self-care – while peer to peer support (both formal and informal) is an incredibly important part of all aspects of student life knowing when to refer and who to refer is really important, and I’m very cautious about the risk of students (and as acknowledged for personal tutors) of the emotional burden and risks that can arise from trying to support students beyond ones brief or expertise. The relationships our student learning assistants have with student cohorts enables trust, a level of approachability that even the best of academic staff can’t provide, and a real sense of belonging and being “like us” as well as an aspirational and realistic model of how to be a successful student. Aside from formal programmes and scheme one question arises for me is how do we support and encourage that informal ability to support each other. We know that some structures such as subject-led student associations support this, but in contexts with for example high numbers of commuter and/or working students how do we create these environments?

  2. This is a very insightful post highlighting the persistent challenges in the personal tutoring system within universities and the ongoing efforts to address these issues. It’s evident that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t effectively cater to the diverse needs of students. The proposed shift towards a peer support model, inspired by practices in Finland and Sweden, is an intriguing idea.

    In addition to the formalisation of peer support systems, another avenue worth exploring could be integrating life coaching into the academic support structure. Life coaching could offer students personalised guidance, helping them navigate not only academic challenges but also the broader spectrum of personal and professional development. Life coaches can provide the friendly face, sympathetic ear, and practical advice that students often seek from their peers, contributing to a more holistic support system, while allowing for an independence which may allow some students to feel more comfortable with the process.

    Moreover, life coaching could address the noted crisis in confidence among students. By empowering students with tools to build self-confidence, set goals, and manage stress, life coaching can complement the academic expertise provided by university staff. This multi-faceted approach recognises the complex needs of the modern student body and aims to create a supportive environment that fosters both academic success and personal well-being.

    As universities navigate the changing landscape of student support, incorporating innovative solutions like life coaching alongside peer-led initiatives may offer a more comprehensive and adaptable framework for the evolving needs of today’s students.

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