Posted on 7th June 2009
Undergraduates are hiring private tutors
From The Sunday Times
By Sian Griffiths and Jack Grimston
Students are taking drastic steps to rectify what they regard as poor teaching on their university degree courses
University undergraduates are hiring private tutors to help them pass exams because they feel they are receiving inadequate teaching on their degree courses.
Tutoring agencies have traditionally been used by affluent parents - including Tony Blair, the former prime minister - to boost the prospects of school-age children.
Now, however, they say they are finding a burgeoning market among university students who claim to suffer from a lack of face-to-face teaching.
Institutions where the practice is becoming established include Oxford, University College London (UCL), and Warwick.
The willingness of undergraduates to pay up to £40 per hour for private tuition - on top of annual fees of £3,145 - is the latest evidence of students’ discontent about teaching standards that do not match their expectations.
Students at universities including Bristol and Manchester have recently staged protests against cuts in teaching hours, growing class sizes and a rise in the use of postgraduate students to fill in for academic staff. Recent government research has found that British undergraduates have the shortest teaching hours in the European Union.
Fleet Tutors, one of the country’s biggest private tuition agencies, with offices in Hampshire and London, has seen a 30% rise in the number of undergraduate clients in the past year.
“This is one of the highest growth areas for us,” said Mylène Curtis, the company’s managing director. “Students are finding they get to university and have inadequate teaching. Contact time is not enough and those who are struggling need more face-to-face contact to enable them to cope with their workload.
“Others find it difficult to structure their thoughts into coherent essays. They are not arriving at university with adequate skills.”
Chris Guy, a retired physics lecturer from Imperial College London, said he was providing private classes to undergraduates at Oxford and UCL. He also recently taught students at Queen Mary, a college at London University.
“Lectures are so huge at many places that it has become the norm to have courses that simply do not succeed in getting the information across,” Guy said.
Joanna al-Zahawi, 22, in the third year of a business economics course at Kingston University, London, has received coaching from at least two private tutors, including a course of seven hour-long lessons costing £210, to prepare for exams that end tomorrow.
“My lecturers at Kingston come from different countries and I cannot always understand them because of their accents,” Zahawi said. “It is not very fair. The way some of them teach is quite basic. They give us a chapter to read before we come to lectures and just highlight points from it.
“Another friend on my course is also using a private tutor. And I know people in other departments at Kingston who use them. My mum doesn’t mind paying for tuition if it helps to get a good mark but she says that in her day there was no such thing.”
Kate Shand, founder of the Enjoy Education tutoring agency, based in London, said she had up to 100 undergraduates on her books, up from 10 two years ago.
“They tend to come to us for particular modules where they come up against specific problems and find they cannot get the specialist help at university,” Shand said. Tuition for maths and sciences was in highest demand.
She added that tutoring was often carried out by PhD students studying at the same university as the clients themselves.
Flora Spencer, 22, a business and management undergraduate in her second year at Bath Spa University, is such a case.
Spencer, a former pupil at the fee-paying Sherborne school, paid £28.50 an hour for private tuition from William Close for a recent accountancy exam. Her own lecturer suggested she take private tuition classes.
“There is one module in accountancy and financial management which I find very difficult because I am not very good with numbers,” Spencer said. “My lecturer . . . gave me a couple of free extra sessions. Then he suggested I contact Bath Tutors \.”
Spencer says she has to sit in large classes at university and receives only nine hours’ teaching a week.
“I would like more because I work better with more teaching hours,” she says. “We have lectures where there are 100 people there. In our seminars there are 25 people. At school, we had much more intensive teaching.”
Although the biggest tuition agencies are based in London and the southeast, there is demand from students across the country. Huazhu Zhang, a PhD researcher at Warwick business school, privately coaches four undergraduates at his own university and other students from Reading, Sheffield, Southampton and the London School of Economics.
He said he knew of four of his colleagues who were also charging undergraduates for private tuition, particularly for course modules that they found especially difficult.
“Sometimes they do not understand the lecture notes,” he said. “They should be able to have their own \ tutors or to go into their lecturer’s office and ask but this is not always possible.”
A spokeswoman for Kingston said it had a “long-standing reputation for teaching excellence”. She added: “In the case of the economics department, just under half the lecturers are not native to the UK but the majority have been working as academics for many years and are very fluent in our language.
“We are committed to providing the best experience for students, so encourage anyone with concerns to contact their course director or head of school.”
Additional reporting:Alex Webb and Ruth Lewy