Analysis of Access and Participation Plans (APPs), Personal Tutors, and the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic degree awarding gap.

By Andrew Rawson, Treasurer of FACE | 31st March 2023

Unlikely connections? I have been working closely with the United Kingdom Advising and Tutoring association (UKAT) for the last two or three years out of a strong personal feeling that the Widening Participation and the Personal Tutoring communities ought to be working more closely together to best support students recognising the different but complementary roles. I have just revisited a previous blog post on this issue that I wrote for FACE as part of the research I am currently undertaking as a contribution to a wider report examining the BAME degree awarding gap by UKAT’s Special Interest Group. My contribution is to re-examine how Personal Tutoring may or may not be included in Access and Participation Plans – this time focused on the BAME attainment gap.

Why do I consistently highlight the importance of Personal Tutoring?

As I have written before, Personal Tutors are arguably the one role which offer students a consistent one-to-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution, throughout their student journey. Undeniably, however, the Personal Tutor systems and the individual Personal Tutors themselves differ widely in the ways they interact with their students.

Plenty of research informs us that student engagement and belonging, including meaningful interaction between staff and students, is central to cementing student retention and success; and a good student-Personal Tutor relationship can span both domains – student engagement and the academic. Purposeful personal tutoring, at its most effective is a proactive, intentionally-structured process which focuses on student growth and development with a strong academic focus. Unlike the Widening Participation practitioner, the Personal Tutor role is embedded into the academic experience, based at faculty or school level, offering an effective way to stay in touch with students. They can act as an effective early identifier of risk and can direct the student onwards to appropriate assistance – as well as helping tutees to clearly differentiate their interests and academic strengths towards a ‘good degree’ and eventual entry to a highly competitive job market.

BAME attainment and Access and Participation Plans (APPs).

Returning to my research on the BAME attainment gap, it is true to say that this has been a long- standing, sector-wide issue: one identified as such in institutional Access and Participation Plans and in Access Agreements before them. Looking at Access Agreements for 2014-15, 25% of these had specific targets relating to BAME students and 16% having specific targets for raising BAME attainment. When looking in APPs for Personal Tutor contributions for my previous FACE blog post, I examined twelve institutional Access and Participation Plans but found only a very small number of references to the contributions of Personal Tutoring; mostly referrals to other support mechanisms in the institution, particularly in regard to counselling, finance and careers advice.

In my current research, looking specifically at Personal Tutors and BAME attainment, I examined a small sample (10%) of the 298 APPs for ‘20/21-‘24/25 published on the OfS website and found a significantly increased number of references to Personal Tutoring work which is very encouraging. 5 of the 30 had developed or were developing structured Personal Tutoring systems and practices, supported by relatively new learning analytics systems aimed at producing higher levels of engagement and success for all students through the Personal Tutoring system. This does indicate greater linkages to Personal Tutoring in APP work, however, once again I found no direct references to Personal Tutoring and BAME attainment.

Similarly, I found that 29 of the 30 APPs explicitly prioritised the reduction of the BAME degree awarding gap with very specific aims and ambitious detailed targets. In addition to the 10% sample that I examined, I conducted a straightforward search on the words ‘Personal Tutor’ and ‘Academic Tutor’ for a further 14 APPs (randomly selected) and again discovered no specific mention of Personal Tutoring linked to BAME students. Overall however, none of the APPS detailed activity to reduce the Black degree attainment gap through the Personal Tutor’s role.

Reduction of the BAME gap – efforts taking place elsewhere in institutions.

A number of APPs did report that activity to raise BAME degree attainment was being undertaken as a part of generic work to increase students’ access, participation and success: Race Equality Charter work; student focused approaches promoting belonging and inclusive environments; mentoring programmes; decolonised and more inclusive curricula and other wider institutional academic support for student engagement and success strategies and activities. This might be where Personal Tutors are more involved and active in efforts to reduce the BAME gap within their institution. In fact, the higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), emphasises that approaches to tackling degree awarding gaps for Black, Asian and Minority ethnic students are or should be embedded in all areas of work and not limited to particular departments or specific areas of policy and strategy.

Personal Tutoring and the BAME attainment gap.

We must be very aware, therefore, of the “hidden” embedding of Personal Tutors in generic inclusive institutional practice does not get lost and does not prevent us identifying the intervention or impact of the Personal Tutor on BAME attainment in the most recent Agreements (2020-2025). They may not be mentioned specifically in an APP, however, they are working effectively to improve BAME attainment. This is obliquely hinted at in some of the APPs whereby Universities describe a “whole institutional approach,” for example, the University of Hertfordshire describes “a personalised approach which ensures that each student is tracked and known by at least one person (personal tutor, coach/mentor, cohort tutor etc)”.

This may be where the Personal Tutor role best intersects with Widening Participation and Student Support; where Personal Tutor work gives us a better networked set of what can be (or is often perceived by students to be) fractured support services. Coherent Personal Tutor support offers better intelligence for support services. Early identification of existing or putative problems is key, leading to improved student engagement, student success and therefore improved institutional retention and success statistics.

Andrew Rawson is Treasurer of FACE and Director of Action on Access and founder of the new reframed and re-booted AonA Information Hub and Email Briefing Services.

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