Leader: Hours and hours of reckoning

In higher education, it's not how much time you spend with students, but what you do with it that should count

August 11, 2011

What is a contact hour? How does a lecture with 70 other students equate with a seminar group of eight? What if the lecture is awful? Does it still count as an "hour"? The current obsession with measuring time spent with lecturers to ensure value for money, although understandable at a time of increased tuition fees, not only misses the point but gives the wrong impression about what a higher education is for. Students want to be involved in their learning but not in a passive way; they come to university to have their minds expanded, not just filled with gobbets of knowledge. And, importantly, there needs to be a clear distinction between secondary and tertiary education.

In many subjects, university is about independent learning - having the time to read, write and explore the world of ideas - and about directing that learning. Contact time is about tutors ensuring that students are on the right track and making good progress, and addressing the problems if they are not. Seminars and tutorials are the best method to do this. It is all about communicating with students: listen and learn works both ways.

For many out there, the ideal scenario would be to compare contact time for each subject across institutions. But each experience is necessarily unique and students entering higher education with weaker qualifications will need more help. It would be unfair to compare an institution with large numbers of such students with one admitting predominantly AABs. What is important is that students can access personalised support when they need it and that tutors do not have so many students that they cannot spot when it is required. One size does not and should not fit all.

The recent White Paper avoids the language of "contact hours" - instead emphasising combined teaching and private study time - and, according to Paul Ramsden, a higher education consultant better known for previously heading the Higher Education Academy, it insinuates, by using "sloppy manipulation, otherwise known as cheating", that more contact with academics increases quality. Yet the report it quotes, by Graham Gibbs, for the HEA, actually says that the number of contact hours has little to do with the quality of the education received.

What Gibbs says, drawing on 30 years of research, is that input variables, such as resources, do not predict outcomes and that outcome measures, such as employability, reveal little about the institution, other than its reputation and what kind of students it can attract. What really matters is what institutions do with their students, using whatever resources are available. This means focusing on class size; cohort size; who is teaching; feedback (how much, how quick and how useful); the extent of close contact with academics; and the extent of collaborative learning. The last two are about providing quality, not about measuring amounts, as the government seems to believe.

And that is the heart of the problem. There is no magic number of contact hours that will give students the outcome they desire. It is right to give them information about what they can expect in terms of time to be invested in them, but if it is used to make them buy into the idea that an increase in tuition fee equals an increase in contact time, which in turn equals increased success, then that is just dishonest. They deserve better than that.


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