Leader: Mixed messages about teaching

November 2, 2006

There are few more sensitive issues for undergraduates - or the staff who teach them - than the amount and style of tuition offered on different courses at different universities. Applicants will look in vain for hard information in prospectuses, but the introduction of top-up fees will ensure that the information is sought out much more keenly in future. This week's report from the Higher Education Policy Institute contains a wealth of data that staff and students will find useful, but still shies away from the key institutional comparisons. While it is able to identify teaching time across subject areas, for some reason the measure changes to "total hours invested" when the survey reaches institutional level.

Such caution may reflect a lack of confidence in the students' returns on which the survey was based - do medical students at the University of East Anglia really work three hours more per weekday than those at Queen Mary, University of London, for example? But there is bound to be a suspicion that adding "self-directed study" to teaching time is a convenient way of smoothing over the more contentious findings. A degree certainly involves both elements, but consumers and producers alike will be more interested in seminar time than the hours spent voluntarily in the library.

Not surprisingly, there is no simple message from the report. Students with the heaviest workload are almost as likely to be dissatisfied as those at the other end of the spectrum - presumably one group wants more free time and the other more teaching. Some newspapers have interpreted the findings as showing that new universities are a soft touch because they demand less work while offering a better chance of a good degree than their older counterparts. Yet another sees new universities as the winners because they offer smaller teaching groups and more likelihood of tuition from academics rather than postgraduates.

The good news from Hepi's research, as from the National Student Survey, is that most students are broadly satisfied with their courses. Only 11 per cent find the experience worse than expected, although another 40 per cent have some reservations. Overwhelmingly, students hope for smaller teaching groups, rather than more hours of tuition or improvements to sports facilities or campus security. The academics no doubt concur: this week's YouGov report finds them struggling to satisfy the competing requirements of teaching and research. If the demands of the student customer grow in the way that many expect, universities will be forced to improve the quantity and the quality of tuition in much of the arts and social sciences. All the self-directed learning in the world will not be enough.

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