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LUSU Vice President (Academic) Robin Hughes was right when he told me that he saw postgraduate tutors as a transition for first-years between school and university. Senior academics can seem worlds away from our A-Level teachers, which can be intimidating for new students.
Postgraduates, being for the most part younger and less detached from undergraduate study, bridge that gap. In my experience they understand the major concerns of first year students, which predominantly revolve around getting to grips with working in the way the University expects. In my first Part One seminars we were given helpful exercises on bibliographies and referencing which I don’t think a more senior academic would have spent the time on. This, coupled with the approachable and down-to-earth attitudes of most tutors I’ve come across, definitely made the transition to university easier.
From an undergraduate perspective, I think having postgraduate tutors works well with Lancaster’s major/minor system. Senior academics teaching at Part One is to an extent wasteful; they can end up teaching a large proportion of students taking the subject as a minor, who often don’t care as much as they could about the course. Postgraduate tutors could argue that they are then left to pick up the pieces and teach both major and minor students. However, surely all students would prefer the senior academics, often leading figures in their fields, to be free to teach them when it really counts, at Part Two? For this reason postgraduates teaching at Part One benefits undergraduates at both Part One and Part Two.
That said, there is a school of thought which suggests that students under the new fees regime will not pay £9,000 a year to be taught be a postgraduate. That’s a valid argument. But I believe that if they spoke to current undergraduates they would find that, despite one or two isolated horror stories of incompetence, the majority of experiences are positive. Asking senior academics to teach more on Part One courses in the major/minor system would be detrimental to everyone’s experience, not least the student when they enter the crucial stages of their degree.