Counting university contact hours is a waste of time

Discoveries made off-campus are as valuable as lectures, says Christopher Bigsby

November 20, 2014

Stephen Fry has observed that “education is the sum of what students teach each other in between lectures and seminars”. Before you ask whether students shouldn’t therefore get back some of the £9,000 tuition fee, it is worth considering whether all the blather about contact hours isn’t, as Fry would doubtless say, so much arse. Do we judge a book by its number of pages or, as a professor of history I knew did, by its weight? Besides, the Quality Assurance Agency has said: “There is no evidence to suggest that, taken alone, contact hours offer a meaningful way in which to measure quality.”

Fry attended only three lectures in his time at Cambridge, of which he remembers two, one because it was so boring. Hugh Laurie managed one, and what crushing failures they have been (a 2:1 and a third, respectively, since you ask). I am not recommending this approach, merely observing that university is not an information factory where workers are required to labour for ever longer hours at clattering academic looms.

Lectures have their value. I have attended many over the years, a fair number, admittedly, being of stultifying tedium. I have given a few, probably equally calcifying. The best are not those that attempt to pour information into your ear, the approach unaccountably adopted by Hamlet’s uncle when administering poison, but those that send you spinning off into your own mind. Outside the lecture theatre your real enquiry begins.

I taught one of the best academics in America. He fell asleep on a regular basis in my seminar having worked a night shift to make enough for his fees. Or maybe it was me

The Puritans delivered sermons of quite admirable length. It was John Newton, captain of a slave ship turned Anglican cleric, however, who in 1777 recommended ne quid nimis (no more than enough), adding, “If an angel was to preach for two hours, unless his hearers were angels likewise, I believe the greater part of them would wish he had done.”

When Fry declares in The Fry Chronicles that university should not be about Gradgrindery, a place of vocational instruction, “training for a working life and career”, but “a place for education, something quite different”, he is plainly, as he knows, defending what others would see as an “arrogant Athenian self-indulgence”. After all, as government and the press enquire, if it is not shaping students to fit neatly into the carefully sculpted holes prepared by commerce then what on earth is a university for?

Now that students rather than the state pay the cost of tuition, they are encouraged to act as consumers approaching the customer relations counter clutching their receipts and explaining that the lecture on Shelley was not quite what they had anticipated so could they return it, unused?

Could it be, though, that education is less about conforming to the given than interrogating it. As Mark Twain observed, “Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.”

We could, with Stakhanovite relish, increase contact hours, dragging students back from stacking shelves in Waitrose (the middle-class ones, the rest being in Morrisons) for the minimum wage as they clock up ever greater debts. I taught one of the best academics in America in a graduate seminar. He fell asleep on a regular basis having worked the night shift in a mental hospital to make enough for his fees. Or maybe it was me.

Is there anyone who seriously thinks education is something that only goes on in a lecture theatre and that as soon as you leave it you slide into a deepening pit of unsanctioned ignorance or wilful self-indulgence? Television documentaries may follow students to the union bar and present student life as largely featuring vodka and sexually transmitted diseases but not only are students also reading, researching and writing they are also thinking, talking, encountering ideas as much as one another, carnally or otherwise. While the encounter with faculty – preferably not carnal – is one vital aspect of the university experience, part of its function is to act as jump cables do for a car, putting a charge into batteries that can then function without that direct linkage. Learning to learn is a gift to be carried away.

Seminars and lectures do not stand alone. How many hours is it likely to take to read in and around the subject? Imagine a module on the European novel. Clarissa comes in at 1,534 pages, War and Peace, 1,440 and Les Misérables, 1,488. Most Victorian novelists published at least one three-volume novel, although Oscar Wilde suggested that writing a three-volume novel “merely requires a complete ignorance of life and literature”. (The three-volume novel, incidentally, was killed by the circulating libraries that preferred paying for one novel rather than three. One of those libraries went under the name of W. H. Smith.) The American writer David Vann read Madame Bovary at the rate of 20 pages an hour, 10 times the rate at which he wrote.

What, then, is the correct ratio of contact hours to preparation time for students – laying aside the vodka and momentarily pausing from sex, to read, research and write? 1:6? If so, nine contact hours represents 54 hours of work.

Of course contact hours are important, although they are useful only if students have prepared. I once threw out an entire seminar of students because they hadn’t read the book. I was reminded of this a couple of years ago when I made a speech celebrating the achievements of one of those ejected students. As it turned out, he had been too busy writing music for a drama production to get round to the task I had set. His name was Gareth Malone, of the television series The Choir. Contact hours well missed.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs