As well as the great teaching, student opportunities and community feel of the campus, one of the important elements of UEA is its personal tutor system. Most students should be allocated an advisor who is supposed to provide support with academic issues, careers and should be able to signpost to other university services when there’s pastoral issues.
The role of an advisor is to provide ongoing holistic support to students. As a member of the student’s school, an advisor is responsible for meeting with the student a minimum of three times throughout each academic year. While advisors do not account for all of the academic support provided by the university, they certainly form an important part of it, and are often the first person a student will contact if something is effecting the student.
Lots of students tell us that when the system is working well, good academic advisors can make the difference between a third and a first, and even between staying on and dropping out. But good support seems to be inconsistent between staff, and over the past few years too many students have told us at the SU that the system isn’t working for them- with tales of poor record keeping, incoherent advice and meetings that students dread.
Data collated by the SU confirms that students are either having very good or very bad academic advisor experiences. And this finding extends to students enrolled in the same programme- which provides stronger evidence that the problem lies with advisor inconsistency rather than programme-specific issues. And students know it. “Academic advice is not equal between all of the different advisors so some people get more comprehensive advice than others”, said one student last year. “Academic advisors are different and every student gets a different advisor. Therefore give different amounts of support” said another. “Some academics are not suited to the role of personal advisor… I really struggled last year with something… [my advisor] sent me a one line email telling me to keep my chin up"
There are other problems. Some students argue that getting in touch with their advisors, or getting a timely response, is difficult. Others feedback that their advisor gives them inappropriate careers feedback, or seem lost when trying to navigate the University’s support services. For students who are let down like this, something needs to change.
Back in 2014/15 the SU took part in a UEA review of the advising system, and amongst many of the things that came out of that review was a commitment to proper training. “Advisers should ensure that they are fully briefed on the requirements of the role” said the revised policy, and “have undergone appropriate training at the required frequencies”. It also stipulated that advisors should be able “to refer advisees to other specialist support services as required”.
Then last year following continued poor feedback, the SU argued in its student experience report that UEA should review its system for training academic advisors and ensure that “none can begin to practice as advisors until they have had correct, up-to-date training”. The University agreed with this response- and said that all new advisors “would be expected to work through the … module before they undertake advising duties”.
So imagine our surprise when this summer the University revealed that out of over 1,000 academic advisors across the University, just 184 have completed adviser training over the past five years.
This would be bad enough, but there is a commitment in the new UEA Mental Health plan to “review guidance to advisers and postgraduate supervisors and relevant School support staff to ensure clarity regarding responsibilities and referral pathways for students perceived to be at risk” and for the coming academic year to “include student mental health awareness in CSED and other staff development provision”.
Even if the mental health elements are developed in time for roll out, the commitment will be completely hollow if the University lacks the basic ability to ensure that training (which is supposed to be compulsory for new advisors and completed every three years for others) is completed.
UEA students want, are promised and pay for a great student experience. This includes an advisor system that includes effective support on academic issues, careers, pastoral issues and an awareness of mental health- as well as signposting to services around the University effectively. It’s time the University actually delivered on those promises- putting in place a proper system to make sure people carrying out this role are trained and making sure that students know how to raise concerns about their advisor when they have them. Given that when UEA students elected me advisor training was a central promise, I’ll be making UEA delivery on these promises for students an SU priority in coming weeks.