Relative values 2

December 7, 2007

The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently completed its consultation on newspaper university league tables. In our response, we expressed concern about some of the information used in the tables. One of our least favoured measures is the staff-to-student ratio.

Academic salaries form, on average, 32 per cent of total university expenditure, so the average academic has to earn three times his or her salary to cover all university costs. This means that the average academic will have to contribute £156,000 each year to university coffers.

Recognising that teaching is not the sum of all academic endeavour, it is possible, nonetheless, to make a simple estimate of the ratios required to achieve that income. For home/European Union undergraduates, the units of resource are £17,200, £8,400, £6,800 and £5,700, with fees for international students now relatively close to those for home/EU students. Hence, the average member of staff would need to teach at 9:1 for medical subjects, 19:1 for laboratory-based subjects, 23:1 for mid-band subjects and :1 for other subjects. Taking account of subject mix, recent league publications appear to show some staff-to-student ratios significantly at odds with this calculation.

Staff-to-student ratios favour those institutions with high funding ratios and a high proportion of staff engaged in contract research. The ratio says nothing of the efficiency or effectiveness of teaching delivery, or of the effectiveness of learning outcomes. Inefficiency in teaching could actually bolster a good outcome in staff-to-student ratios.

More care needs to be applied to ensuring the measures used in tables are accurate and relevant. It is also important that outcomes do not demean universities and their students by measuring them against criteria inappropriate to a mass system.

Val Wilson, Director of corporate planning Northumbria University.

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