Thoughts on Tutoring in TCD

Trinity College operates a system called College Tutors. Apart from the general academic mentoring of students, which is quite properly part of the normal expected duties, the notion of a tutor is significantly more expansive than that. It encompasses a range of what might be called pastoral or mentoring duties, and can be both rewarding and draining. In my time as a tutor I have seen most things, apart from murder, come through the door; suicidal students, students who have become drug addicted, been flung out of home because their parents thought the facial stud/haircut/clothes were whatever, been abused and had to run, students lost and bewildered by the transition from the structured and ordered life of secondary school, students with undiagnosed debilitating degrees, students who had missed a deadline and who literally worried themselves sick, etc etc. It’s a rewarding but eye-opening role. And, according to a 2007 external review

“The Panel was of the view that the Tutorial Service was unique in their experience of higher education in Ireland and the UK. It provides an exemplary standard of support for students and was held by staff to be an integral part of Trinity’s student experience. The dedication of the tutors and the staff of the Senior Tutor’s Office was unfaltering and showed a clear commitment to the values that are inherent to the service aims”.

They further state

“Students experience a wide range of pastoral and academic issues, to a varying degree, and the Service provides an effective method of the College providing support to manage them.”

The Tutorial system is thus a mixture of academic and pastoral care. And as a consequence of the additional duties over and above the academic those, like myself,  that manage a full chamber (100 students) get €255.83 extra per month (before tax).

Many persons have found that the tutor system, where experienced academics can act as an advocate and as a non-judgemental champion, can guide and direct a stressed young person to the right mode of intervention, can provide a confidential and sympathetic ear, where it is made abundantly clear that the primary concern if the system is that the person be and remain a happy and healthy human and the college rules and regs can be and are flexible  enough in interpretation and application to achieve that, that that system is a large part of what kept them in education. And much more importantly, as a tutor one quickly finds that the psychological and physical problems of students are vastly easier to deal with and integrate when they are addressed early than later.

TCD has now proposed a radical change to this exemplary system. I quote below the proposal

“In the first instance, the Planning Group recognizes the importance of Tutorship to the Trinity student experience and wishes to retain this significant aspect of student life at Trinity. However, noting the difficulty in securing ongoing Department of Education and Skills approval for the payment of allowances to Tutors, the Planning Group recommends that payment of an allowance be discontinued, and that I and Staff Secretary work with you on revised arrangements, which would be developed in accordance with the following principles:

All academic staff is (sic) liable to undertake Tutor duties, if required  

Service as a Tutor will be considered explicitly in assessment of applications for promotion  

Service as tutor will be taken into account within the workload allocation model

A portion of the savings achieved through withdrawal of allowances will be made available to the Senior Tutor to strengthen the tutorial service.”

This raises several problems, which are examples of the kind of issues that universities will be grappling with over the next number of years.

In the first instance, its not at all clear that the role of the tutor as now constructed is one that should or could be seen as an integral part of all academic staff. People opt into the pastoral nature of the tutorship. In fact, there is no great shortage of volunteers, with more applicants than can be taken on, and being a tutor is not for life, it is reviewed every five years. Not all academic staff have the interest, time, temperament, perspective or empathy to deal with the pastoral and counseling elements that are integral to and a central plank of the TCD tutorial system. Many would in fact be disastrous. That does not make them worse academics – it is to simply recognize that people have different portfolios of skills and treating all as interchangeable misses a fundamental point of academic institutions, that the core academic staff are specialists and that implies strengths and weaknesses. In fact, I would argue that this conceptualization, that all staff can at a pinch do a particular task, demonstrates a significant misunderstanding of how organizations work. What the proposal suggests is that a part of how TCD should work, the coordination mechanism as Minzberg titled it, is that academics should standardize their work processes. While that may seem sensible at the outset, it is more characteristic of a machine bureaucracy than the organizational form and structure known as the professional bureaucracy where work is coordinated by standardization of skills. To ensure that all academic staff who are now to be liable to become tutors would be appropriately skilled in their pastoral and academic and organizational knowledge would require large scale training, screening and reskilling, as well as marking a fundamental change in the type of faculty to be appointed. In fact, it’s arguable that the professional bureaucracy is itself flawed as a model of how universities work, with an adhocracy or a missionary form more appropriate, but that is a thought for another day. What is clear is that this is part of a tendency – there is within the ether the concept that universities are really hard secondary schools and as such, at a pinch, all academics are interchangeable. That concept represents the dominance of what Minzberg calls the strategic apex, the top management, whose natural tendency in organizations (be they individual universities or the post-secondary system as a whole) is to accrete power to themselves via changing the structures in such a way as to buttress their power.

Second, there is great lack of clarity as to whether this proposed change is (within TCD) allowable under the statutes, and in any case it represents a change in existing contracts where a degree of compulsion is now possible. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Flexibility is a good thing but it does make sense that the flexibility might be useful. There are many more pressing organizational rigidities within TCD as there are in any large organization that could be removed before tinkering with something that is as close to the core of the organizations ethos and spirit as the tutorial system.

Third, the cost savings are (while welcome) minuscule, about 1/10 of a percentage point per annum, 440k out of 330m,  and will impact disproportionally on the lower echelons of college academics. Fully 2/3 of the tutors are at the lecturer grade. A cut in take-home pay of some €250 p month will impact significantly more on someone on the fifth point of the lecturer scale than on the top of the senior lecturer scale. Add to this the effective bar on promotions; the realization that a further cut in public sector pay is probably inevitable; the massive and unnecessary uncertainty about almost everything that has emerged from the meddling of the HEA under the Employment Control Framework; the severe cutbacks in research and related funds; and you have a situation where it will become increasingly difficult to attract and retain internationally competitive staff. And this is at a time when Irish universities, led by TCD, are making enormous strides in becoming and remaining world class.  Recent rankings for TCD rank Chemistry 36 worldwide,  Physics 49th,  Mathematics 15th,  Philosophy, Medicine, Modern Languages, and Biological sciences were ranked in the top 100, Psychology 48th, English language and literature 32nd,  history 39th and so on. As more and more subject areas are ranked its clear that TCD is, across the board, world class, truly exceptional in some areas. We cannot have world-class universities without world-class academics, and we cannot retain these if we continue to make their working environment less and less attractive. The option to be a tutor,  with some recognition that this involves going above and beyond the norm of academic mentoring, is actually an attraction to TCD. Making it (potentially) compulsory, in an environment where no college wide workload model exists to ensure that the lack of monetary compensation is made up for by the promise of (possibly non existent) promotion, that is not attractive.

What this shows is how university administrators and managers, working in ever increasingly constrained financial environments, under the usual pressures of an organization,  and striving to do their best by all stakeholders, can and will begin to take decisions that are shortterm cost saving but which run a risk of longterm damage. Universities need to be given the financial and organizational freedom, and the concomitant responsibility that goes with that, to determine their own path to world class excellence.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tutoring in TCD

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