Personal Tutoring and the Sustainable Development Goals
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have become a significant feature in the contemporary Higher Education landscape. Launched in 2015, the seventeen objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals are intended to be ‘a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.’
The potential for universities in the United Kingdom help achieve these goals is recognised through the actions institutions take to make direct alignments and contributions through teaching, research, and partnerships. Times Higher Education even runs an ‘Impact Rankings’ league table to try to illustrate how (and how effectively) universities across the world contribute to this important initiative.
The 2023 Impact Rankings provide an interesting snapshot of where institutions are concentrating their efforts. There are 58 UK universities in this ranking, and it is clear that whilst all of the Sustainable Development Goals are being worked on impactfully by a range of UK institutions, some of the Goals receive more attention than others, notably SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals, 100% of institutions) and SDG03 (Good Health and Wellbeing, 91% of institutions).
The focus on Good Health and Wellbeing perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given the incredible medical research coming out of UK universities that has a major impact on health outcomes at home and globally. But it’s worth reflecting a bit on other ways in which UK Higher Education could be contributing to this aim, and that’s where personal tutoring comes in.
It may seem a stretch to place personal tutoring in the context of a Sustainable Development Goal that aims to reduce global mortality rates, develop vaccines and medicines, and end epidemics like AIDS and malaria. However, within the targets of this Goal, 3.4 to be precise, is the aim to, ‘by 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.’
Scholarship and research into personal tutoring and student wellbeing reveals time and time again that personal tutoring, done effectively, has the potential to identify student wellbeing issues at an early stage (Walker 2022), to signpost students to appropriate, professional mental health support (McIntosh et al 2022), and to have a transformative impact on students’ sense of self-worth (Hallam 2023). As well as positively impacting the mental health and wellbeing of individual students, institutions that deliver consistent, supportive, developmental personal tutoring will contribute to a wider impactful culture that speaks directly to this Sustainable Development Goal.
If Higher Education institutions are serious about embracing the aims and values of the Sustainable Development Goals, then fostering mental health and well-being within their institutions through effective personal tutoring is a sure way to ensure that the long term aims of the objectives can be met locally as well as globally.
Mental health and well-being is just one way in which personal tutoring can support the Sustainable Development Goals more widely. Now, being realistic, I appreciate that personal tutoring in UK universities is probably not going to have much of a direct impact on SDG07 (Affordable and Clean Energy) or SDG14 (Life Below Water). However, there are others where the culture that effective personal tutoring creates can have immediate and measurable impacts.
SG04, Quality Education, aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. It is now widely recognised within our sector that effective personal tutoring is as key to student success as effective teaching, and that, in fact, you can’t have one without the other (Lochtie et al 2018). The values of personal tutoring championed throughout contemporary scholarship, and by UKAT as a professional body, centre on inclusive and equitable relationships and practice. Issues around student retention and success that often impact marginalised and vulnerable student groups can be addressed through effective personal tutoring cultures and systems, provided institutions ensure that there are reasonable staff-student ratios, that there is access to training opportunities for all tutors, and that there are well-resourced professional sources working together with academic teams to support the needs of a large and diverse student body.
The potential for student empowerment that effective personal tutoring offers our students, together with effective teaching, speaks to other aims within the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the most powerful targets sits within SG10 Reduced Inequalities. Target 2 aims to ‘empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.’ What are we ultimately doing as personal tutors, and as Higher Education professionals, if not this?
I mentioned earlier that I couldn’t see a direct relationship between many of the Sustainable Development Goals and what we do as personal tutors in UK universities. However, I was being far too literal. I believe that as personal tutors we should encourage our students to be aspirational, to aim high, to reach their full potential regardless of what challenges they have faced or are currently facing. Personal tutoring is often transformational, and it is not an exaggeration to say that in some cases personal tutoring can be life changing.
UK Higher Education institutions need to become better – and become better quickly – at making explicit the links between education and its impact on and relationship with sustainable development, in the same way that they should be actively addressing institutional decarbonising and decolonising (Hall et al 2021). Universities need to refocus their recruitment and widening participation strategies to ensure that they are playing a role in shaping aspirations at an earlier educational stage (Fairlamb 2023), and supportive, student-centred personal tutoring systems that ease the transition from school to university must be central to this. Some consideration of the relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals and personal tutoring could be of some help in articulating and implementing institutional approaches.
Target 7 within the Quality Education goal expresses an aspiration that we should, ‘by 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.’ Effective personal tutoring has the potential to help all students to adjust to, remain in, and thrive at universities. In turn, those students will go out into the big wide world and, whether they go on to further study and research or into the workplace, and they are the ones who will change the world.
It turns out, therefore, that it’s not so much of a stretch to consider the role of personal tutoring in realising the Sustainable Development Goals. The sooner universities recognise, reward, and invest in effective personal tutoring that supports student retention and success, the more substantial and lasting their contributions to the global challenges we all face are likely to be.
Fairlamb, Alex (2023), ‘Ensuring equitable, equal, empowering education’ in Drew Dalton & Angela Smith (eds.), Gender, Sexuality and the UN’s SGCs: A Multidisciplinary Approach. London: Palgrave, 83-105.
Hall, Richard, Lucy Ansley, Paris Connolly, Sumeya Loonat, Kaushika Patel & Ben Whitham (2021), ‘Struggling for the anti-racist university: learning from an institution-wide response to curriculum decolonisation’, Teaching in Higher Education 26:7-8, 902-918.
Hallam, Isabel (2023), ‘College higher education commuter students’ experiences of belonging, mattering and persisting with their studies’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education 28, 373-389.
Lochtie, Dave, Emily McIntosh, Andrew Stork & Ben W Walker (2018), Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education. St Albans: Critical Publishing.
McIntosh, Emily, Deeba Gallacher & Alex Chapman (2022), ‘Case study 14: A ‘whole of institution’ approach: what does a culture of advising and tutoring really involve?’ in Dave Lochtie, Andrew Stork & Ben W Walker (eds.), The Higher Education Personal Tutor’s and Advisor’s Companion: Translating Theory into Practice to Improve Student Success. St Albans: Critical Publishing, unpaginated ebook.
Walker, Ben (2022), ‘Tackling the personal tutoring conundrum: A qualitative study on the impact of development support for personal tutors’, Active Learning in Higher Education 23:1, 65-77.