Contact assessment

July 11, 2013

For two reasons, John Linfoot’s letter on “costing” student contact time made me smile (“Contact lenses”, Letters, 4 July). On the one hand, his figures are awry: the figure of 300 notional “contact hours” relates to only one part of one year’s study, as the Quality Assurance Agency has decreed that 10 hours of learning should gain one unit of “credit”. A full year of study is made up of 120 credits, and thus a notional 1,200 hours of contact time. If an institution charges the full £9,000, that equals £7.50 an hour, not £30 – rather cheaper than going to see Bob Dylan.

But the other reason is that it reminds us that this sort of approach is nonsense. It is nonsense to think that a degree is made up only of commodified units, akin to a night’s entertainment. Nonsense to imagine that 1,200 hours of contact time is anything other than arbitrary (a figure arrived at by fantasising that students work a 40-hour week across 30 weeks of teaching). Nonsense to use this as a stick with which to beat academics over their alleged failure to match the heights of “professional oratory”.

There are good reasons for academics to develop teaching skills and to care about the pedagogic experience of students, and to communicate as clearly as we can the structures by which we teach degrees. But embracing a marketised model on the basis of arbitrary figures is a mistake in a number of senses: a category mistake (education is not a commodity); an economic mistake (the individual and collective benefit of education is not causally linked only to contact hours); and a strategic mistake (going down this route will not make students happier, only better equipped to see themselves as consumers).

John H. Arnold
Assistant dean: history, Classics and archaeology
Birkbeck, University of London


Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579) anticipated John Linfoot by 450 years. He realised, in the reign of Elizabeth I, that there is a strong demand for lectures by expert academics but aimed at a general audience. Gresham College was his solution and, as a result of his legacy and foresight, it still provides public lectures in the City of London. However, unlike Linfoot’s suggestion of paying audiences, all the lectures are free.

This ancient institution has also embraced the modern world. We don’t, unfortunately, have video of Sir Christopher Wren, an early Gresham professor, but visitors to our website can find more than 1,500 lectures that can be downloaded free, viewed at leisure and – if wished – used as courseware: 2 million downloads were the result last year. Last week, Gresham launched an app for smartphones and tablets, both Apple and Android, which we believe is the first such free provision by any higher education institution in the world. Anyone, anywhere and at any time can view lectures by Gresham professors, visiting professors and lecturers such as Christopher Hogwood, Raymond Plant, Carolin Crawford, Vernon Bogdanor, Simon Thurley and many more from the recent past; three or four lectures are added each week.

The downloads, and the 20,000 people who attend Gresham lectures each year, are evidence of an enormous thirst for knowledge that universities should certainly try to quench. The college is, however, disinterested in every sense: there are no courses, examinations or formal students, and the institution is still paid for through Gresham’s legacy. Our success seems to prove the reverse of Gresham’s famous law (that bad money drives out good) by showing that audiences worldwide respond to high quality. Universities planning to provide massive open online courses or charge for lectures would do well to heed this message and, perhaps, seek their own far-sighted and wealthy benefactor to replicate Gresham’s gift. We would welcome the competition.

Sir Roderick Floud
Provost, Gresham College

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