On your side: when does the tutoring stop?

By | 23 February 2012

Recent news reports of university students employing coaches or tutors to help them knock their large quantities of undigested research into presentable essays and dissertations ring alarm bells.
The reports suggest that this might be okay for the kind of written work undergraduates have to produce routinely, but concern should surely be expressed if this additional help was applied to coursework which contributed to a final degree classification or to a dissertation.
The students quoted failed to see the problem. They said they had had extra tuition in their school lives, why not extra tutoring now, over and above what the university with its crowded lecture theatres and tutorials could offer?
They declared themselves excellent researchers – they had done the work. In the cases quoted, it seemed their only problem was actually organising the mass of material into a presentable form. Hence the coach/tutor.
But wait a minute. Does this practice not destroy the currency of a degree? Because one of the things a degree certainly used to tell the world was that you could organise the work as well as do the research; that your grasp of the material was clear and fluent.
If you could not organise the stuff, then you were in the wrong subject, wrong university, wrong territory – get out of history and into accountancy if that’s where your talent lies, but don’t get a degree by pretending you can do those things because if you do, what’s the degree worth?
The answer to that, of course, is plenty, according to government figures about life-time earning expectations. Something of an incentive to cheat, perhaps?
But is it cheating, and if so, does anyone mind? You could say that these tutors are merely filling the gaps which lecturers, more keen on research, have left. The students were right when they said they had had tutors before – London newspapers, for example, are full of stories of tutoring in the capital, mostly to get children through selective entry exams like Common Entrance in the independent sector, the 11-plus or towards GCSE and A levels.
Parents fear that no matter which school the child attends, extra tuition would be a good idea. It might make a lifetime’s difference. What matters is the grade, not how you got it. If a class gets two hours a week on maths and little Johnny gets an extra three hours at home, then good for him. Johnny will be proud of his A*, universities will believe he was clever enough to get it, and Johnny is never going to admit to the extra time. And, in his defence, you could say he put in the work.
When I was head of English in a girls’ grammar school, I was horrified if any of my pupils asked if they should get coaching. It felt like a personal insult – what more could they possibly want? And if they went ahead and got the tuition, and scored well in whatever exam, I always felt neither I nor the school could take the credit for that result. How unfair to judge a school on GCSE outcomes when the school is not actually responsible for all the teaching a pupil receives.
Somehow I expect that tuition in the school years probably is just that – booster lessons, supplementing what schools do, and mostly do very well. But having someone organise your degree work? That isn’t tuition, it’s ghost-writing.
It is perhaps a pity we have come to accept ghost-writing as honourable in the world of celebrity books, because we are on a perilously slippery slope when we do. Hiring an organiser to knock your degree work into shape is to fall at the final fence of your education and get someone else to jump it for you, and that can’t be right. It’s rather like training for the Olympics and getting someone else to run for you. Somewhere along the line, the final performance surely has to be your own.
This guest editorial, written in a personal capacity, first appeared on the Sec Ed website at http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=89918;type_uid=7.

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