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How do 'care' or 'pastoral support' activities contribute to core strategic outcomes in higher education?  

29 Jan 2024 | Sarah Hubbard, Senior Consultant (Leadership, Organisational Development and Research) at Advance HE, and Dr Liz Brewster from Lancaster University, introduce a new member benefit on decoding and defining support in HE organisations. 

In an increasingly relentless, challenging and competitive higher education environment dealing with the many after-effects of Covid 19, ‘support’ continues to be the balm that is applied when resilience is depleted.  

Whilst often a key ingredient in ensuring student and colleague retention, performance and improved wellbeing, responses to the Advance HE Leadership Survey suggested it as an area lacking in institutional focus. Notably, academic and professional services colleagues working in academic departments to deliver learning and teaching, provide support to students which is often hidden. This contribution is unaccounted for in terms of time, personal cost and more structurally in relation to workload, reward and recognition.   

Decoding support 

As part of our ‘Growing the Workforce of the Future’ Member Benefit Series, ‘Decoding Support’, seeks to define the characteristics and activities of ‘support’; understand the impact of providing ‘support’ on ‘support givers’; understand the importance of ‘support’ work on organisational effectiveness; explore possible implications of the findings on organisation and identify opportunities for organisational re-design. We will share our findings in May 2024.   

Key findings from an initial literature review, summarised below, identify tangible and real benefits for students and colleagues in receipt of support and there is alignment to relational pedadogy. Impactful support is contextualised, authentic, relational and boundaried. Some aspects of support are codified in organisations and most frequently the role of the personal tutor is utilised. Generally, there is a lack of recognition of support given and received in informal spaces, both to students and colleagues; support described between colleagues is not widely referenced, nor is support provided by professional services colleagues.  

There is an absence of structural recognition and reward in organisations for support or care, and the activities are often carried out by women with an additional impact through a race lens. Against toxic aspects of culture around performance and workload, this compounds the impact on colleagues’ wellbeing and retention. There are several questions that remain unanswered:  

  • What are the activities undertaken in informal spaces with students?  
  • What activities are undertaken in support of colleagues?  
  • What other roles contribute to providing support eg professional services?  
  • How much time is involved?  
  • What impact does social identity have on contribution to support; what is and isn’t done and why?  
  • Where are examples of organisations where this work is recognised and rewarded?  
  • What could be a vision for a relational and learning organisation and what are the key organisational design features?  

Focus groups 

In the next phase of this research, we will be holding online focus groups on Monday 11 and Thursday 14 March 2024 with academic and professional services colleagues working in academic departments, who identify with the activities or role of ‘support-giver’ to students or colleagues. This may be as an academic or personal tutor, a wellbeing champion, or a much more informal role based around ad-hoc need from staff or students. 

Please register your interest for these focus groups or to receive further updates on the findings of the research.  

What the research tells us 

There are tangible benefits realised for students and colleagues in receipt of support and it is posited in relationships 

The literature describes how students placed a high value on the ‘support’ (Mitchell, 2015), attention and care of their lecturers (Bell, 2022) particularly in the transition to university life (Hughes & Smail, 2015). Some felt they would not have passed if it were not for the support they received (Mitchell, 2015).  This regard for support was also shared between colleagues and cited one of the most common coping strategies by academic colleagues (Darabi et al., 2017).  Impact from support is about the quality of the relationship and genuine feelings of connectedness (Stephen et al., 2008 in Grey & Osborne, 2020).  

Academic colleagues described how good relationships with colleagues decreased the negative aspects of work, more often than support from their line managers, although this support was also valued (Morrison Gutman et al, 2023).  Specifically, relationships with academic peers, were one of the most valued elements of the role. They also valued their relationships with students, and their satisfaction increased when students displayed positive attitudes and motivation to learn (Darabi et al., 2017).   

Authentic interactions are critical in support (and learning)  

A perception of ‘care’ is critical to establishing trust (Stephen et al., 2008 in Prowse et al., 2021), not easy to establish (Karpouza and Emvalotis 2019 in ibid.) as it is more about a “perception received, rather than a provision delivered” (ibid., p.498).  The genuine expression of care (Yale, 2019) and sensitivity aligns to literature on ‘relational pedagogy’ (eg Bingham and Sidorkin 2004; Margonis 2004); Stark and Warne (1999) described how ‘connectedness’ is developed via commitment and caring. These types of interactions foster a sense of belonging (see Hooks 2009), trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2002 in Bell, 2022) and higher self-concept and motivation (Barefoot 2000 in Yale, 2019).  Nurturing these interactions and increasing wellbeing was also reflected in increased academic satisfaction (Mantzios et al., 2020).  

The role of the personal tutor is most often used to describe the nature of support to students provided in academic departments 

The role of a ‘good’ personal tutor is described as the ‘anchor on which the support system of the university rests’ (Wheeler & Birtle, 1993 in Prowse et al., 2021) and is seen as an answer to the complexity of enabling student satisfaction and attrition (Roberts 2018, Barbe et al., 2018, Mountford-Zimdars et al. 2017 and Lochtie et al. 2018 in Prowse et al., 2021).  Evidence suggests that students value support and care, more so than campus facilities (Bell, 2022).  In UK HE, personal tutoring is mostly articulated as part of an academic role; in other HE systems (eg USA), it is performed by professional services colleagues (Prowse et al., 2021).    

The clarity of role, structure and boundaries enable healthy relationships 

Supportive relationships promote a sense of belonging in students and have been found to increase student satisfaction through connectedness (Palmer et al., 2009 in Yale, 2020) (Mantzios et al., 2020) whilst also contributing to their wider learning (Hagenauer and Volet 2014 in Yale, 2020) and improved retention (Thomas, 2006 in ibid.). However, these relationships need to be co-produced by tutors and students (McCulloch, 2009 in Yale, 2019) with shared understandings, shared responsibilities and a shared sense of the common good (ibid.). These relationships need to account for the imbalance of power (Sennett 2004) to be successful.  

The relationship is enabled through clarity around availability, purpose and ongoing, open communication (Yale, 2019).  As summarised by Grey (2020), tutors demonstrate such pastoral relationships by advocating for students, being empathetic, proactive and reliable (Stephen et al., 2008), being supportive and non-judgmental, (Ghenghesh, 2017), being enthusiastic (Thomas, 2012), approachable (Owen, 2002), available, having a good level of knowledge and seeming interested in the student (Smith, 2008).  Seemingly small details, such as knowing students’ names (Ghenghesh, 2017)(Bell, 2022), responding quickly to communications (Bell, 2022) and seeing each student as a unique individual (Barker & Mamiseishvili, 2014 in Bell, 2022) had a big impact.   

Establishing boundaries in the relationship can be complex, particularly for those with shared characteristics such as ethnicity or sexuality. Channer & Franklin (1995) offer the lens of black lecturers and black students to discuss how the boundary may be blurred when there is a shared experience of oppression. The need to establish ‘robust professional boundaries’ (Schwartz, 2012 in Bull, 2022) while maintaining authenticity requires emotional labour. Boundaries need to be considered within a broader ethical framework in accounting for power and responsibility.  

There is limited organisational support, recognition or reward for the contribution of support, within a highly challenging context

In spite of the clear benefits to colleagues, students and the organisation (see above), there is a systemic exclusion or lack of accounting for ‘informal support service’ to students and colleagues (Mitchell, 2015)(Littlejohn, 2023)(Kandiko Howson et al., 2018)(Breeze et al., 2020).  Provision of support is often contingent upon availability and goodwill (Breeze et al, 2020) and evidenced in the lack of recognition in workload allocations or rewarded in pay or promotion (Breeze et al., 2020). This work is often described as ‘academic housework’ and tends to be done mainly by women (Angervall & Beach, 2017b, Heijstra et al., 2017 in Kandiko Howson et al., 2018) and members of other marginalised groups. This may be accompanied by a sense of responsibility to provide representation and support based on personal experiences (Channer & Franklin, 1995) or a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion (Slack & Pownall, 2023).   

For those given a formal supportive role, such as a Personal Tutor, there is a lack of training, support, formal supervision (Banta et al., 2002, Earwaker, 1992, Huyton, 2009, McFarlane, 2016, Watts, 2011 in Grey & Osborne, 2020), or time to undertake relevant training (Gubby & McNab, 2013 in ibid.).  This was particularly experienced by more junior colleagues such as Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) who perform much of the day-to-day support for students in classroom settings (Slack & Pownall, 2023). A lack of acknowledgement in existing metrics around pastoral student support, “compounds the emotional and practical demands on staff” (Morrish, 2019 in Brewster et al., 2022, p.556).  

Three key aspects to organisational design perpetuate these dynamics. Firstly, current workload culture and structures, including long hours, and the ubiquity of information technology (Lundberg & Cooper, 2010 in Turner, 2022) can negatively impact on wellbeing of staff and students (Winefield et al., 2014, Currie and Eveline, 2011 in Brewster et al., 2022) (Fetherston et al, 2021).  

Secondly, reductions in academic faculty have increased workloads (ibid.) and the dual pressures of increased student numbers and decreases in funding present challenges in being able to maintain ‘appropriate levels of support’ (Darabi et al., 2017).   

Thirdly, an increasingly performance-based culture (Salimzadeh et al., 2017) has “promoted a competitive, individualistic” work ethic (Brewster et al., 2022, p.557) with an absence of boundaries between work and family domains (Clark, 2000 in Fetherston et al., 2021) and rewards for excessive work rather than self-care or care for others.   

A call to action to re-imagine our organisational and educational purpose 

Fundamental questions arose from the literature around the frame of reference or underpinning beliefs relating to students and their needs, and the organisational response; “models shape the way in which students’ autonomy is valued and the ways in which accessing support is normalised or pathologised, conveying messages to students about their capabilities” (Myers, 2013, p.592).   

When we consider learning as a process of change, the transition involves uncertainty at any age (ibid.); learning by design evokes needs in all (Advance HE, 2023).  If our role is to enable learning, what organisational design changes do we need to see?  

Meaningful solutions 

This blog tells us that authentic support and interactions are essential and this contribution is poorly defined by the organisation in relation to role design, competency development, workload recognition and reward structures.  There are a number of outstanding questions that are important to explore to then be able to identify appropriate, meaningful solutions.  

If you are working in an academic or professional services role in an academic department and identify with the role of ‘support giver’ to students or colleagues, we invite you to express an interest in participating in online focus groups, on 11 and 14 March 2024.   

Engage with this project

To find out more about this project, and the other two in the Growing the HE workforce of the future theme, visit the project page using the button below. 

You can also express your interest in attending the Focus Group using this form. Please do let us know which session you would like to attend. 

Visit the project page

Bibliography and references  

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