RARA (Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration) aims to reduce all attainment gaps to 0%. This was recognised, repeated and reiterated throughout the conference – as minimising the attainment gap results in the promotion of equality in an academic environment for students, so that they may all reach their best potential during their university years.
During the conference, we had the honour of meeting and listening to our colleagues across the sector share their fantastic and enlightening work. The different talks concluded that although widening access helps improve the diversity and complex social inequalities, it does not however correlate with reducing the attainment gap and in fact personal tutors, when trained effectively, can help diminish the attainment gap and enhance the university experience for all students.
It was established within the conference that “staff are agents of change” (Mountford – Zindars et al, 2015) and this finding indicates that most staff are likely to want to actively work with their tutees towards creating a sense of belonging, and to address the inequalities in order to develop strategies to tackle attainment gaps. Many strategies were highlighted throughout the day, however one of the most arguably fundamental strategies was trust building, described as creating an environment in which students feel that they can come and see their tutors at any time for any problem. To develop such trust in a workplace is defined as “willingness to accept uncertainty and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity” (Hope-Hailey et al. 2012). It is important to recognise that transition into university is difficult, particularly for students from Black and Minority Ethnic and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as they are often first-generation students and the minority group within the division, thus find it difficult to find like-minded individuals that they feel comfortable around. Therefore, with improved trust and communication, their people skills would be enhanced as well as their competence, benevolence, integrity and predictability (Dietz & Den Hartog, 2006) which would result in students being pushed towards engaging in extra-curricular activities.
One of the take home messages of the day was to re-frame personal tutoring as teaching, rather than looking at it as a separate support system provided by the university. Many personal tutors become extremely frustrated as they believe they are not fully equipped for what is perceived as a non-academic duty, which in turn leads them to not fully delivering the core principles of their work. However, if we can apply a pedagogic lens to personal tutoring, viewing it as an embedded academic practice we could train all academics to be able to effectively communicate with their students, so that students can begin to think about themselves in relation to their subjects. Thus, it is important to merge both the pastoral and academic approach for all personal tutors so that, as universities, we reconceptualise personal tutoring as an academic approach to give all students well-rounded support. It is fundamental to come up with a holistic approach that would foster this student-staff relationship to create a sense of belonging and ultimately bridge the attainment gap.
All in all, it was wonderful to see how far RARA has come, where it will go and all the positive changes it aims to bring about.
By Reem AlHakim, Student Intern, King’s College London