Personal tutoring and that gym membership analogy

I've recently taken our middle son to a number of university open days. At every open day presentation I've ever attended (or, I'm sad to say, given), the presenter normally mentions early on in the presentation the wonderful personal support they have for students provided by their personal tutoring system. In my career, whenever I've had to give such presentations, I've always felt a bit disingenuous making such claims because I know that some students will get great support from an amazing personal tutor, other will be less lucky in their allocation of tutor, and many students won't really engage with their personal tutor again beyond the first week or two of their course.

I'm sure you're all familiar with the gym membership analogy of higher education, it's certainly one I've heard presenters discuss at various conferences in the past few years. This analogy is often used to challenge the view that students are now 'customers' and that education is a 'service' which they are buying. It does this by drawing a parallel between higher education, and the student’s participation in it, with the purchasing of a gym membership. Essentially, the analogy is this: if I want to get fit and healthy, I might consider buying membership of a gym. But buying gym membership alone is not sufficient to make me fit and healthy, I have to commit time and effort to working out in the gym and using the exercise equipment to realise the benefit and get the outcome (fitness) that I want. And the same is true of higher education. Just registering for a degree programme and paying the course fee isn't sufficient to give the student a good education and gain a degree, they actually have to commit time and effort to studying their course in order to the get the outcome they desire.

On the face of it, this is a useful analogy, but the simplicity of it has always troubled me a little bit as it glosses over some of the reasons why people do or don't use their gym membership. Some people buy a gym membership and make good use of it. The gym bunnies and fitness freaks are there every day working out, using the equipment to its best advantage to improve their physical condition in the way they intended. They are familiar with gyms, know their way around the equipment and understand what kind of exercises they need to do to achieve the result they want.

Yet there are also plenty of people who buy a gym membership and never really make use of it, and thus don't get the benefit they were anticipating. And we have to ask why they don't make use of their membership? For some it's because they really weren't that invested in getting fit and healthy and it was just an impulse they were never likely to see through, a bit like a student who realises they had signed up for the wrong course and drops out quickly. For others, perhaps there are some barriers that make it difficult for them to access and use the gym to its best effect. Maybe they've never been to a gym before and they're not comfortable in the new environment of the gym? Perhaps they are unfamiliar with the different kinds of gym equipment and don't really know how to use it properly? Or perhaps they don't really know what kind of exercises they need to do to achieve the fitness results they're looking for? That's the kind of experience many of our students have when they first move to university, especially first-generation students - it's an unfamiliar environment, with unfamiliar rules and ways of operating, and they're not really sure what they're supposed to be doing in it or how they're supposed to behave.

But what if I signed up to a gym membership and, as part of my membership, the gym offered me the services of a personal trainer who would show me around, help identify the best exercises for me to perform, explain the equipment to me and show me how to use it properly? Would that make it more likely that I would attend the gym and get the benefit from my membership? I think it would, and if that service was offered to me, I would definitely sign up for it. It would help me feel that I understood the environment and what was expected of me, and my trainer would work with me to understand my fitness goals then give me some targeted guidance on how I could achieve them. And isn't that what a good personal tutor does for students in higher education? Familiarise them to the environment, understand their aspirations and goals, and give them advice which helps them achieve those goals?

Maybe we should consider using the analogy of personal tutors being personal trainers for higher education to better articulate the value of the role to students, parents, and HE managers?

About the author

David is the Chief Executive of UKAT.

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