For many of us, the concept of a personal tutor is little more than a gruelling childhood memory. The Saturday mornings spent surrounded by exam papers, and the after school sessions desperately attempting to grasp the finer details of Physics GCSE are experiences we would readily choose to forget. However, it seems for some this is no longer the case. Private tutors, traditionally associated with affluent parents and schoolchildren, are now reporting an increase in demand from undergraduates.
Fleet Tutors, one of the country’s biggest private tuition agencies, told Impact they have seen a 30% rise in the number of undergraduate clients in the past year, with the company’s managing director confirming it as “one of the highest areas of growth.” And this statistic doesn’t stand alone. Kate Shand, founder of the London-based Enjoy Education tutoring agency, said she had around 100 undergraduates on her books, a 1000% increase on the 10 students they tutored jus two years ago. As alarming as these figures alone may appear, they don’t necessarily betray the full extent of the private tuition story. There is evidence to suggest that students are also making private arrangements with individuals, rather than through agencies, so the real popularity of the practice may be even greater.
Even the countries most prestigious institutions are not exempt from the issue. Dr Vincent McKee, Director of the Independent Institute of College and University Tutors (ICUT) confirmed that his organisation has been contacted by an increasing number of Oxford students over the past two years, confirming that even those traditionally at the highest end of the academic spectrum are getting in on the act. But why? I raised the issue with one mother with children at the prestigious Eton College. She explained to me that that the £29,000 a year fees which she was currently paying for each of her boys was “a lifetime investment,” and a “small price to pay to ensure their future success.” This small price was one which she also admitted to “topping up” near exam times, investing up to a further £50 a week in private tuition for each son. I asked if she would be willing to continue to invest so highly in their education when her sons continued on to University, and if personal tutors were something she would consider in pursuing at that stage. She laughed, informing me that the fees then would be a “comparative bargain” and there would be “no question” that she would continue to invest in tutoring.
An anonymous language student from our own Nottingham University revealed she’d had three hours a week of private tuition over the summer in order to improve her language proficiency in preparation for her final year. “My parents had me tutored throughout school, and it was their suggestion to start again now,” she explained, “Considering the current job climate it is important to get ahead in any way that we can.” Curiously she too selected the term “lifetime investment” to justify the money spent on such a venture.
But are we missing the point? Peter Edwards, spokesperson for the Blue Tutors organisation, pointed out that “students are often unwilling to ask for help.” This suggests that perhaps the help is there all along, in our own University course tutors, and some are simply too quick to throw money at the problem before searching for the most obvious solution. Inspired and influenced by their parents’ generous ‘investment’ in their education, they see no reason not to continue in the same vein. Students are often accused of treading a fine line between confidence and arrogance and perhaps this is an example: should students have the confidence to ask for help, rather than the arrogance to try and buy a “better” alternative? Certainly in my own experience on the rare occasions I have plucked up the courage to visit my tutors in their office hours they have been delighted to help and even implored me to encourage other students to go and see them as no one ever does! No one wants to become a needy part of the furniture in their tutor’s office, yet to completely bypass help readily offered in favour of a financially draining alternative is undoubtedly a foolish decision.
The question of finance is one which is specifically relevant in the current economic atmosphere. A survey of over 2000 adults carried out in July by Ipsos MORI found that just 38% of respondents now think that people in the UK have equal opportunities to get ahead, compared to 53% in 2008, with 70% of the public considering that parents’ income plays too big a part in children’s life chances. Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, commented: “Most people see this country as a land in which wealth and background are more important in determining opportunities in life than talent and hard work.” A concept which arguably stands true in this instance with better-off students able to buy an academic advantage over their classmates in the form of a private tutor, regardless of natural talent or sheer diligence.
The government’s initiative to ensure that youngsters from less privileged homes are able to access our most prestigious universities only goes so far if such individuals are then denied the opportunity to compete on a level playing field when they get there. An Arts student at the University of Nottingham disclosed her concerns: “I receive a government grant to enable me to attend University,” she explained. “I also work part time. Although I am extremely grateful for the opportunity, it sadly now seems we are reaching the stage where it is not enough. I cannot afford the private tuition and extra resources that some of my classmates can.” She went on to divulge her feelings of “inferiority and inadequacy,” exasperated entirely by her financial situation rather than her academic ability.
However as well as splashing the cash, it also seems that students are cashing in. Some graduates and undergrads are charging on average £25 an hour for their own tutoring services. As this article has already demonstrated the need is certainly there and it appears that astute graduates are becoming more than ready to meet it themselves. A Psychology graduate from Cardiff University explained, “as graduates we are cheaper than professors and far less intimidating, so we can do really well out of tutoring,” describing the job as “topping up” her main salary and helping to pay off student debt; although this is a debt which I can’t help but wonder has been increased by her ready admission to paying for private tutors herself throughout her final year.
It appears then that the culture of private tutoring is a vicious financial circle. Students brought up in a world where a good education comes at a price continue to see the need to invest in order to get ahead, whilst those left on the outside financially increasingly become at risk of being sidelined academically.