Fewer tutors are indeed needed, faculty vice dean of education Bram Steijn confirms, but this is part of a larger revision of education and meant as a quality boost, he explains. “We think tutorials are still very important and about fifty percent of them will remain. But one aim of the revision that started this academic year is to make education less dependent on tutors with relatively little experience. We want to intensify contact with more qualified staff instead of tutors, so we’re hiring more assistant professors and academic teachers on permanent contracts.”
Covid and ChatGPT
According to Steijn, the tutorials had worked fine for years, but in recent years, circumstances have changed. “A few years ago, we already had to scale back the tutorials from three to two hours because there weren’t enough classrooms available. And then corona happened. Two-hour remote tutorials didn’t work well during the pandemic. Nowadays, you see assignments are happily shared among students or they use ChatGPT for them. So the nature of assignments has to change. And we haven’t scored well in the National Student Survey for years, and our students tend to be not very self-sufficient at the end of their studies. We really had to figure out a new vision for our education. And having quite unexperienced teachers in such an important role seemed like one of the places we could improve upon.”
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Five tutors have already voluntarily found a job elsewhere, according to the two tutors. Some of them expected to be out of work after the summer. The departure of the five – which, according to Steijn, is nothing unusual – does mean that Steijn can guarantee that no one will have to leave anymore, as long as their contract can still be extended. The tutors were informed of this after EM asked questions about it.
Steijn says some tutors were offered a permanent contract as an academic teacher, but unfortunately there isn’t room for everyone. “I think we had about thirty tutors in this department, in the end about 18 or 19 jobs will remain.” Those will be a mixture of some tutors and higher qualified staff, exact numbers will depend on the number of new students applying next year.
According to tutor Billy Groom, most tutors started their jobs with the promise that they could stay for four years. “That was later adjusted to three years because of changes in the collective labour agreement, but is now becoming even shorter for some.” Leaving after less than three years is not an issue (anymore), according to Steijn: “Anyone who wants, can stay, if contractually possible.” He’s also disappointed with the change in the labour agreement. “The new situation means indeed more uncertainty for tutors, because instead of two contracts of one and three years, we now had to give them three contracts of one year each.”
Compared to three years ago, the tutorials in the first year of the bachelor programme will be shortened from three to two 45 minute blocks, while the group size will grow to a maximum of 25 students. That used to be 14. “But we still have to reach the same learning goals”, says De la Vega. “I can hardly give students individual attention now.” In the second and third year, about half of the tutorials will be replaced by larger, interactive classes with perhaps 150 students. The hours spent in small groups will be reduced from about eight to four hours per week.
But those will be replaced by interactive and activating classes in innovative ways, Steijn says. For example by using digital tools like Mentimeter, discussions in break-out groups and surveys. He says the expansion of groups does not apply to tutorials that focus on practical skills. Also, the learning goals are adjusted to the shorter classes, Steijn insists.
Groom lectures second- and third-year students currently and is sceptic about those larger lectures. “If you have a lecture with 150 students, how interactive is that?” He cites another role that he believes tutors fulfil, which will come under pressure as a result. “Students come to us when they are struggling with something. That can be about anything, ranging from relationship problems or financial difficulties to mental issues. Of course, they can also go to a professor or a confidential counsellor, but we are the ones sitting in a classroom with them for four hours every week. It’s not just about impoverishment of education.”
‘If you have a lecture with 150 students, how interactive is that?’
Added to this is the fact that the current generation of students has already missed out on a lot of physical education due to Covid-19. Groom: “I think this puts these students at an even bigger disadvantage. Learning together, having the chance to ask questions and get help, can help them master the material better.” De la Vega: “They often haven’t even got to know their fellow students because there are so few contact hours in small classes. So how can they make friends?”
Steijn knows that some tutors try to help students in many ways, sometimes even with mental health issues. “It’s laudable that they are so involved, but it’s mainly their task to only notice these issues and redirect a student to a student counsellor for example. They’re not equipped to handle this themselves. Better qualified staff is perhaps even better equipped to at least notice these issues.”
‘Already too few tutorials’
Students aren’t too happy with the upcoming changes. First-year student Tony van der Linden (19) thinks there are too few tutorials to begin with. “At the beginning of this year we had one skills tutorial every week, but between October and now there were only four or five.” For the Public Administration student, tutorials are an important moment to better understand the material. “A tutor can explain the material in a variety of ways. In the skills course, for example, you learn to write scientific articles. That would be much more difficult without the help of a tutor.” Another role that tutors have for him is a social one. “You run into them in the corridor, and even with the tutors I no longer have, I have a friendly chat. You’re less likely to have that with professors.” Should there be fewer small tutorials and more with 150 students next year, Tony wonders whether personal feedback will still be possible. “Then something will really be lost.”
Mariia Kamenskaia (18, first-year MISOC) will be affected by the plans next year. She sees tutorials as a crucial part of education. “I think they are really helpful for the study process, because all we usually have to do is go to lectures and read. The tutorial really helps to understand information better. And I think without tutorials, grades of students might decrease.”
Some concepts can only be properly understood in small, interactive groups, Mariia thinks. This became apparent, for example, during a tutorial for the Organisation and Management course, Mariia says: “I remember that we did simulations about tendering of public-private partnerships. It was really interesting, because the lecturer talked about it in theory but only in the tutorials we had a chance to understand how it works in real life. The simulations really helped me to understand. Such an assignment would be impossible in a large group.”