HE Mentor Role

If Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) is a basis of Higher Education Mentoring, then much of this will derive from the Deering Report called Higher Education in the Learning Society (Dearing, 1997). It means the integrating of careers advice and employment into Higher Education courses. This is separate from the IAG below Higher Education, which is a concern of Jobcentres, Connexions and training providers. Higher Education then is to be judged not only on the basis of learning for learning's sake (and other liberal arts and related noble aims) but for its connection with the economy. A central feature here is the growth of the knowledge economy using Information Communications Technology (ICT), and thus the importance of Higher Education is being the basis for producing high value added work. Research is important here. In terms of Higher Education pursuing its own purer product, this was seen as a "guardian or transmitter of culture and citizenship" (Deering, 1997, para. 21) and there is the effort "to increase knowledge and understanding for their own sake". (1997, para. 23) and yet apply these for economic benefit, as well as the HE role towards "a democratic, civilised, inclusive society" (para. 23).
However, another institutional motive for developing HE Mentoring is retention, that is the statistical recording of 'success' for Higher Education institutions involving issues of funding for students completing courses and not completing courses. In this case there is a kind of 'fire brigade' mentality of looking out for problem students and setting up means of support that can hang on to as many as possible that are considering leaving.
Students leave institutions for a variety of reasons. Many of them are based around finance and emotional stress due to changes in personal circumstances. This can affect particularly the more mature students juggling life events and coming into education again, perhaps with a lack of confidence (due to distance or absence of background) in their academic abilities.
Nevertheless, although an HE Mentor can point a troubled student in directions of pastoral and practical support agencies, the most direct support can be that of a continuous learning conversation around study skills and sufficient literacy, numeracy and ICT skills to enable the student to better do the course they are on. This is about the building blocks of capability, and having to develop abstract understanding (not simply concrete learning) in order to manage the thought processes that Higher Education subjects use. The HE Mentor in effect introduces the student to the discipline of the discipline they are in: its tradition of learning, and the proper way to connect into that tradition, and the complete avoidance of plagiarism. This is very important especially for postgraduates tackling higher degrees.
There can be teaching of study skills and literacy/ numeracy/ ICT like there can be teaching of any subject. There are general points to be made to all students; however, as building blocks, these matters surely are individual to each student in terms of need and progress.
What an HE Mentor should do is combine the matter of study skills and literacy/ numeracy/ ICT with a counselling style relationship that underpins a student's progress through a Higher Education learning institution.
At first each new student becomes known to an HE Mentor in terms of what is already their experience and skills academically and otherwise (say hobbies and interests). What they need in terms of building blocks and the progress in gaining them can be part of the continuing conversation between student and HE Mentor. The HE Mentor can also look at general subject work progress, and can find out about events in the student's life that affect progress.
In counselling terms, the relationship - the ongoing conversation - should deepen as time goes on. Trust builds and there is a real sense of support for a student. Advice and indeed guidance from the HE Mentor - once a student himself or herself and now fully part of the academic community - moves into full flow.
However (and this is particularly so for higher degree students) a point comes where a relatively stable-situation student slowly breaks off from the HE Mentor so that a situation of dependency does not result. The student will one day be as capable of standing autonomously as the HE Mentor.
So what is it that the HE Mentor and student talks about? Well the HE Mentor does not mark the subject work, but can look at it from a study skills and literacy/ numeracy/ ICT point of view and provide constructive feedback. There may be some subject talk too, so long as the HE Mentor does not tread on the toes of colleagues (in other words, liaise).
Questions might include such as these. Does the essay show effective reading of this part of the academic tradition? Is it written in a properly academic neutral style (and if not, how to develop this)? Is it clearly the individual's own construction, with all writing sourced from elsewhere clearly referenced? How about a book review in the subject: can the student effectively summarise an article or a book?
What is important is that the HE Mentor shows a keen interest in the student, and so there must be a lot of talking around. It is friendly, though not just of a friend. The HE Mentor is rather the student's supporter and advocate, to give knowledgable advice and guidance relating to what is heard but also to take the issues to those people where they can be dealt with (as and when the student gives consent). To some extent there is an overlap with a personal tutor here, but again the personal tutor deals with pastoral and performance issues on their own terms. This role is about academic progress via skills and abilities, but it is the counselling element that makes it more holistic than that of a study skills teacher. It is much more about this welcome to the discipline of the discipline and how the student as a whole person adapts into this community of learning and research. For example, the student's own hobbies and interests will be discussed with relevance for the academic tasks the student faces. The HE Mentor can reassure the student: that actually mistakes are a means to learning or that if the task seems too great then break it down into parts.
Altogether then an HE Mentor can carry out all kinds of roles from the student's point of view: as a teacher of information, an advisor, a guide, a counsellor itself, a consultant of expertise, another tutor on personal lines, a guru demystifying the academic world and a role model in academia (the HE Mentor will forever repeat his or her own academic history in terms of mistakes corrected and how the ladder was climbed).
Subject teachers, study skills personnel and personal tutors need regular meetings with the HE Mentor. It is the closeness of the relationship that Subject teachers and study skills persons cannot pursue due to their time practicalities, and it is the academic support details that personal tutors (usually a subject teacher too) do not focus upon.
The HE Mentors ought to be able, therefore, in collaboration, to occasionally 'sit in' with a student during academic work, and to review the product. The conversations, the directions pointed to, should assist in the acquiring of knowledge and skills, show techniques for networking and collaboration, to paint a picture of how the discipline operates academically and even as human interaction jockeying for policies, so that the student becomes an acadmic citizen and with confidence can take on more demanding academic work.
In turn the HE Mentor assists the institution. Fresh minds get encouraged and can spark new ideas; the ideas and techniques being introduced by senior academics become explained and spread about the student population; a student workforce for new projects emerges; and academics can see which students can work with them on their own scholarly activities; and the academics of the future can be identified and developed.
On a much more basic level, retention is better. Students that develop confidence in their work have a positive ongoing in life for which the negatives can be in contrast: the negatives are less likely to result in student withdrawal. A student who can blame externals for their low performance might be looking for excuses when the real reason is lack of academic confidence. With confidence, a person with a career trajectory into Higher Education may find that actually strengthened with a personal crisis, because it becomes the one success in life, the one way to a positive new beginning.
The HE Mentor, however, in relationship (and a maturing, distancing one might have to be re-engaged), can pick up signs of external stress or negative events and, as part of the advocacy role, with permission, explain to a subject teacher and personal tutor the flexibility the student needs to get through the difficult times with a later catching up.
HE Mentors will be aware of the varieties of students and their needs.
First of all, HE students are getting older. There are more and longer lasting routes into HE. Finance means people leave HE until later on. Some take lifelong learning to mean several courses one after another and presumably with progression up the academic scale. Others enter HE upon retirement, to engage the brain. Older students can be called 'chronologically advantaged' because they come with commitment, with personal discipline, and with experience of time management. They have much to help other students: and the HE Mentor might facilitate such help.
Students are more obviously diverse in make up: whether by ethnicity or sexuality. One has to be careful not to ask students to be spokespeople and also one must not make stereotypical assumptions. There are more foreign students but, again, the HE Mentor cannot just assume that English as the medium of learning is an issue. Gender definitions may rightly or wrongly hang on and have effect, for example for some women and their responses to a competitive culture in a learning institution - but it must not be assumed that they are always more collaborative than men or men are always competitive than women. The HE Mentor should just listen to every individual. Women will have as much in the way of ambition as men. As the economy shifts its employment patterns, Higher Education is bound to be affected.
Developing cultures of heterosexism as well as homophobia should be challenged, as indeed with any discriminatory talk and activity. Students should indeed learn to use inclusive language in their work, because selective language always excludes (and it is not a simple matter of being too 'politically correct' but of making sure all are valued and included in the very fabric - the words - of academic life).
When the student gets to know the HE Mentor, the confidence should build to reveal any concealed as well as or rather than any obvious disabilities. There may be means to be flexible about work deadlines and establishing access issues, again to enhance the learning and to oil the works of academic life.
One of the outcomes of all kinds of variance away from a supposed norm is isolation - either through time constraints, finance (not spending on socialising), and difference, and so the HE Mentor will want to put a focus on building social academic contact. One means might be, for example, setting up a writing group, or a reading group, or a debating society. These would be ad hoc and student centred, and need not be tied directly to the demands of the course or research.
The HE Mentor should encourage all students to be visible to others, and to take themselves seriously as people who study. Every student is different: indeed they have different learning biases (textual, visual, kinaesthetic). They all need constructive feedback and encouragement, and to learn how to incorporate criticism, with realistic expectations and means to achieve them. Career potential needs building in to the academic work, whether it is that of more academic work or some part of the knowledge economy.
And, finally, students themselves should be told that they can comment back on the information, advice and guidance they receive from the HE Mentor. This improves what the HE Mentor says, but it also emphasises the two-way nature of the continuing conversation that is at the heart of this role.


Dearing, R. (1997), Higher Education in the Learning Society, [Online] Available World Wide Web: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/ [Accessed July 17 2009].


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful