Feedback matters

April 28, 2011

While Thomas Docherty is probably correct in thinking that the "fetishisation" of contact hours glosses over issues relating to the quality of that contact, he does not face up to students' genuine concerns about the lack of feedback and those of countless employers' surveys about graduates' basic flaws in logic, numeracy and literacy ("Compromising higher education, measure for reified measure", 14 April).

The status quo in which we fetishise student-to-staff ratios is hard to defend. The logical strategy for an unscrupulous (heaven forbid!) vice-chancellor must be to trumpet any highly favourable ratios while cutting actual face-to-face teaching to the bare minimum, leaving expensive staff free for research and the reputation-management exercises that win high international ratings.

Docherty does raise the interesting question of what level of contact different students might need. For example, freshers with weaknesses in logic, numeracy or literacy clearly need face-to-face, individual feedback, yet are sometimes seen as least deserving of such treatment. Should they choose to, the most selective universities are in a position to reject any applicants who might need expensive individual or small-group tutorials.

The new fees regime, which will fund university teaching via total fees minus total bursaries, seems guaranteed to allocate resources in inverse proportion to need.

Unfortunately, without some attempt to provide evidence via some more nuanced measure than student-to-staff ratios, Docherty stands worthily but defenceless against the market forces he fears.

John Lane, Aberystwyth University

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