RARA: A whistle-stop tour

Since its genesis in March 2017, the Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration project (RARA) has grown exponentially from a set of initial hypotheses into a fully-fledged operation that is already delivering a tangible impact through greater awareness of attainment gaps. The RARA partners, University of Sheffield, King’s College London and University of Portsmouth, have worked tirelessly to ensure the project delivers on its promises.

The issue we are tackling is the attainment gap between students from BME (black and minority ethnic) groups and lower socio-economic backgrounds compared with their peers. The journey began with the belief that factors which could contribute to an attainment gap, such as sense of belonging and entitlement to seek out services, are also factors which personal tutors can affect in their work. Whether it be signposting a student to the appropriate support services or providing academic advice about a year in industry, a personal tutor is often the face of the university, bridging the gap between the student’s experience and the academic world.

Rather than trying to create a brand new service aimed at addressing the attainment gap, RARA set out to capitalise on a service that already exists. RARA aims to develop an enhanced model of personal tutoring that empowers both students and staff to build partnerships based on power-sharing and trust. This is not a quick-fix; the process involves incrementally changing the perception of a service that has been deeply engrained in the higher education system for many years. It is also about instigating an institutional culture change, avoiding the discourse the posits personal tutoring as only a solution for when students have problems, and enabling staff and students to create their own journeys to effective and workable personal tutoring.

The creation of a personal tutoring platform at each institution, based on the system already in use at Sheffield (Personal and Academic Tutoring System – PATS), was the first key step on this road. Although the project leads were each given a broad framework on which to base the foundations of their platforms, the finished products have varied according to each institution’s individualised needs. Working on something as tech-heavy as this was a new experience for everyone and each experience varied, something which has been interesting to reflect on when considering the potential scaling-up of the RARA process across the sector. The good news is that all platforms launched successfully on time and have seen real positive impact in the respective pilot faculties. Feedback from staff has indicated that using a central platform to monitor student progress and attendance has helped make the job of personal tutoring more effective.

At the University of Portsmouth, the platform has been scheduled for roll-out across all the university departments, due to how popular it is among staff. At King’s it has been interesting to see the Personal Tutoring Engagement Record (PTER) take shape in the Dental Institute (DI). The great thing about RARA is the diversity of the partners involved, and in the Dental Institute the structure of personal tutorials is unique, in that there is a wide network of support systems available to students, incorporating other academic staff such as clinical tutors.

Following the launch of the personal tutoring platforms at Sheffield, Kings’ and Portsmouth, attention shifted to supporting staff in using the platforms and further gaining staff buy-in. While each project partner approached this differently, all have in mind the long-term sustainability of the project. King’s employed a Project Officer who has set days in the DI Academic Centre and has attended sessions run by the Senior Tutor to become a familiar face. Similarly, at Sheffield, the Project Coordinator has spent time reaching out to members of staff in the Faculty of Engineering, attending committee meetings and raising the profile of RARA in the department. Having a familiar face with a physical presence in the pilot faculties gives staff the opportunity to raise any issues they have with the platforms and has visibly helped to increase awareness of RARA through the pilot departments. RARA is committed to being sustainable after the project completion date and making the face-to-face connections with personal tutors and academics is one of the many ways in which RARA is working to achieve this.

Raising awareness of attainment gaps and personal tutoring among both staff and students has been a priority for RARA. Although creating the new platforms provided a space, and tools, to carry out new ways of working, all partners recognise that the necessary culture change cannot be achieved without raising awareness. The evaluation strategy, led by Emma Broglia, supports the culture change. The strategy has been divided into three phases spanning the duration of the project (‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’). We have employed a mixed methods approach to collect data from staff and students at all institutions. Using a mixture of focus groups and interviews, we are able to determine what is understood about attainment gaps already, how staff and students position themselves in relation to the gap and what personal tutoring ‘means’ to both groups. What has proved particularly interesting from the baseline data has been that staff are aware of the attainment gap generally but are unsure how to position themselves/their departments in relation to the gap. A success of these efforts has been a visible increase in awareness of the gap in their own areas among staff.

In combination with working with staff, partners have also worked collaboratively with student ambassadors and interns to co-create different resources around personal tutoring. Sheffield piloted a student engagement campaign titled ‘Make A Zine, Make A Difference’, in which students were tasked with creating an ‘Alternative Guide to Personal Tutoring’ for students in the form of a small magazine. At King’s, student interns will develop engaging student-facing resources to promote the range of support available to students within the Dental Institute and across King’s, with a focus on personal tutoring. At the University of Portsmouth, the team has developed a research project that focusses on connecting students together. Engaging with students is both crucial and rewarding, it allows us to gain valuable insight into the student perspective which in turn informs the developments that we are implementing. Communication and co-sharing between staff and students is of prime importance when creating partnerships.

Our outreach efforts are not limited to our institutions and one of the ongoing core elements of the project has been the dissemination of project findings and successes beyond the walls of the participating universities. Samuel Dent, the project leader, has been invited to speak at a number of conferences to present the RARA goals and findings. The most recent of these was the British Sociological Association annual conference where Sam presented a poster of RARA project findings, which can be found in the library on our website. The most recent development is the announcement of the RARA conference being held on 21 June 2018 at the Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE) entitled Getting Personal: Conceptualising and Understanding Personal Tutoring. Sheffield, Portsmouth and King’s have come together to host this day of keynotes on topics varying from student mental health to personal tutoring policy and practice, all under the banner of Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration.  The conference will also inform further deliverables from the project such as the continuing professional development toolkit.

The first year of the project has been brimming with success stories and, although the best is yet to come, there is much to celebrate at this point in the project. We have seen discernible impact in the pilot faculties in terms of greater awareness and are moving ever closer to achieving the RARA goals.