Clocking on

Fee-paying students want more teaching contact hours for their money. But do the bald figures on how often they see their tutor tell the whole story? Hannah Fearn investigates

May 1, 2008

The University of Bristol's would-be dentists are getting 35 a week, but its aspiring ancient historians just five. At the University of the Arts London, fine art students could have as little as one a term. But who is getting enough?

It is difficult to measure, let alone compare, actual hours of teaching. Not only are there inherent differences in the nature of the subjects studied (scientists and medics will require far more time face to face with their teachers than a philosopher), but universities cannot seem to agree on what counts as "teaching contact".

Some institutions include timetabled lectures in their figures, others deem these optional extras to core tutorial and seminar times. Many are keen to include academics' and tutors' office hours in the total - students, after all, are entitled to that time with their lecturers should they need it.

According to research published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2007, English university students received on average 14 hours of tuition a week - an increase, but of less than an hour, on the previous year. This figure masks a significant variation between subjects. Students in clinical and veterinary subjects received more than 20 hours of teaching a week, while those reading philosophical and historical subjects had an average of just nine. So far, so predictable.

Overall, the study found that teaching contact hours were rising across most subject areas. But although hours did not differ dramatically when analysed by institution type, the differences between individual institutions for the same subject were surprising.

The total weekly workload required by students (including private study as well as teaching hours) is a further issue. In medicine and dentistry, students at the most demanding institution were required to put in more than 46 hours a week, but at the least demanding just 23. In historical and philosophical studies, with the least teaching hours, students were expected to put in a total of almost 40 hours of work at the toughest university, but just 14 at another. The varying levels of commitment required to earn a degree from an English university raise troubling questions about the the qualification, the report says.

Yet the biggest surprise in the report comes in the figures on small-group tuition. Students at older universities received less small-group tuition - with no more than 15 students to a tutor - than newer universities. Russell Group institutions offered an average of one hour a week in a group of five or fewer, and 2.3 hours with between six and 15 students. Post-1992 universities offered just under an hour of very small group tuition, but 3.4 hours of teaching in a group with between six and 15 others.

Asked what would most improve their academic experience, students called for smaller teaching groups over an increase in the number of teaching contact hours a week, the Hepi report says. They rated extra training for lecturers even more highly, confirming that it is quality of contact that they crave.

The University of Oxford has comparably low teaching contact hours, particularly when it comes to historical and philosophical studies, the subject areas that already have the lowest contact hours on average nationally.

Including non-compulsory lectures, undergraduate students of philosophy, politics and economics are expected to attend just five hours of teaching a week. But, uniquely to Oxford, two of those five hours are via tutorials with just two students to one tutor.

Margaret Stevens, fellow and tutor of economics at Lincoln College, Oxford, and the organising secretary of the PPE degree, says it is this personal contact that attracts students to the university.

"Most students would say that's what they value about the Oxford system. The work is tailored to individual needs. When they're confused about something, they can ask questions," she says. "It's certainly costly from our point of view. It means that we have to provide a very large number of total teaching hours. That's worthwhile only if the students are getting something from it."

Although Oxford and the University of Cambridge do not count timetabled lectures towards overall contact hours, Stevens says that lectures are in effect compulsory. If students have not attended, they will not be prepared for their more intimate and demanding two-on-one tutorials. PPE students, for example, study two of their three subjects a term and have a weekly tutorial in each. For two thirds of these, an essay must be prepared in advance.

"Not feeling anonymous is something that's highly valued," Stevens continues. "They (the teaching hours) are directly focused on the needs of the individual student. These are particularly demanding courses. For some students who are finding them difficult we can concentrate on helping them to understand the more basic things, and for students who are on top of the work it's an opportunity to get them to think more deeply."

With students now paying tuition fees, they are beginning to demand value for money in the hours and in the type of teaching they receive. This can cause problems because, without extra resources, it is difficult for institutions and academics to offer extra hours.

Stevens explains: "In some of the Russell Group universities, there are real tensions between academics splitting their time between teaching and research. There is a trade-off. Lecturers' time is not unlimited. If we have to make more time available to students, then we need to bring in other people, including graduate students, to teach them."

Despite its collegiate model, Durham University does not offer the same tutorial system of teaching as Oxford and Cambridge. Richard Harrison, head of its academic support office, says that despite recommending a flat rate of 200 hours of study for a 20-credit undergraduate module, minimum expectations of teaching contact hours are being reviewed.

The Hepi report says the majority of first and second-year students surveyed felt that they had received good value for money. But dissatisfaction seems set to rise. To show students exactly what they are receiving in return for their tuition fees, universities need to look beyond crude comparisons of contact hours, says Bob Fowler, dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Bristol.

"It's not a very good measure to count up hours. We have to look at the contact, the individual and the educational objectives," he says. "It depends very much on what you do with the hours.

"Science students have a lot more time in their laboratories and those count as contact hours, but the equivalent of the laboratory in the arts is the library. They are working in the library for the equivalent amount of time."

For science students, laboratory supervisors are present during lab hours but do not necessarily provide support unless it is sought by a student. Librarians and other faculty support staff could be said to provide a similar service, yet their time is not considered teaching contact.

"We could increase the number of contact hours," Fowler concedes, "but at the expense of class size. We do believe that it matters, and we try to keep them as small as we can."

At Bristol, final-year students can expect one-on-one tuition to guide them through their dissertation or thesis, but in the arts seminar, groups of up to 15 are the norm. In 2006-07, history undergraduates were up in arms when they learnt that the number of hours of tuition they received each week was to drop halfway through their degrees.

"I do think that the higher fees have brought these issues into focus," Fowler says. "They want to be sure that they're getting value for money, and I think it's a very reasonable thing for them to say. But I think they are getting value for money. Even with a university like Princeton the teaching hours are comparable, and they have an enormous amount of money."

Would Bristol offer more teaching contact hours if it had a bigger budget or charged higher fees? "You're always going to have limited resources and have to come up with the optimal programme that you can deliver."

The debate over contact hours can also frustrate academics, particularly for the course leader who has dedicated an extra three hours a week to provide an open-office surgery only to find that students fail to take advantage of the facility. For Fowler, this comes down to the relationship between students and lecturers. "We have to provide those means, and the students have to take up those means."

The definition of teaching contact is further stretched by advances in technology that help support learning. Students may now demand that their lecturer be available by e-mail every day during term time and to respond to queries quickly.

"The traditional model of teaching contact hours referred to a lecture or seminar, but there has been a move towards more interactive and professionally focused learning. There is a wide variety of models of attendance and study," says Helen Gale, acting dean of learning and teaching at the University of Wolverhampton. "Our teaching now includes online tasks supported by staff within the virtual learning environment and e-mail contact, which is the contact expected by a modern student."

Teaching contact hours could also include work placements. Nursing and teaching students spend long hours in the workplace. Engineering students often have a sandwich year in industry. For many part-time students, study is related to continued employment and they are receiving, in effect, additional contact hours with no direct input from the university. It is a complicated picture.

Yet despite this proliferation of study methods, Hepi showed last year that post-1992 universities have a strong record on small-group teaching - stronger than the Russell Group. At Wolverhampton, Gale says there is a concerted effort to run small-group sessions in addition to other modes of study, and a policy of providing full-time academic staff to support first-year students.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, the umbrella group that represents 30 post-1992 universities, says that despite the introduction of new forms of communication between tutor and pupil, students are demanding small-group tuition.

"The feedback from students is that although they're very new-technology savvy, there is an extent to which they also want traditional forms of contact," Tatlow says. "They don't always want somebody at the end of an iPod. They want access." For many post-1992 universities, the personal contact of small-group tuition could mean the difference between a student from a widening-participation background reaching graduation day or dropping out. "If a higher degree of contact is more likely to achieve success for students, then that's very important."

In contrast, the Russell Group does less well on average when it comes to providing tutorial groups of no more than 15. "The diversity of the learning experience offered to students at Russell Group universities is not easily measured through contact teaching hours alone," says director-general Wendy Piatt. "The UK rightly operates an outcome-based model of higher education where qualifications are awarded based on achieving a certain standard or level of achievement. In such a system, measuring the number of hours studied is not a particularly effective indicator of the health of the UK higher education system."

"Different disciplines have evolved ways of teaching that are best suited to the subject material, the skills and knowledge of generations of students and the requirements of employers and the labour market. Subjects such as science and engineering rely on structured learning and practical, laboratory-based teaching and require more contact hours. Indeed, Russell Group institutions are providing significantly more contact hours than the sector average in these subjects," Piatt says.

"Students of other subjects such as arts and humanities courses require fewer contact hours in order to develop the skills of independent inquiry, original and creative thinking and rigorous analysis. Now, more than ever, employers want graduates who are entrepreneurial, good at problem-solving, able to work independently and within a team."

Students, meanwhile, are organising themselves to ensure that they get what they believe they deserve for their money. As Jack Gillis, student union education and welfare officer at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains: "I think that the cost of education has had a huge impact on the way students perceive their education. We have been forced into a situation where we have become consumers and, as a natural progression, are more aware of the quality of education we receive for our money. As with many universities, at Goldsmiths the quality of resources differs between departments. We have found that the distribution and structuring of tuition and contact hours is excellent in some departments but have campaigned about resources available to students in others."

Over the past two years, Gillis and the student union have focused a campaign on the resources available to art students. One of the big issues of the campaign was the number of hours of personal tuition received by students: the union felt that students received too little contact time. The department had made changes to provision because of the need to bring the department out of a deficit. Students understood the need to save money but felt that the changes had been instigated without sufficient consultation. After robust campaigning, the university launched a formal inquiry into its department of art.

"As a short-term solution, the university has allocated more visiting-tutor hours to third-year students for the final term," Gillis says. "Many students embraced the departmental review, and many others feel that further changes should still be made." But he warns that the reduction in contact hours represents a "worrying trend" in which "institutions are forced to make cuts to provision because of the lack of funding in the sector".

"In our case, the university has listened and taken steps to rectify the situation, but more significant changes need to be made to the sector as a whole. The way in which education is funded and paid for needs to be rethought. The more the Government relies on students to fund education, the more they will stand up and speak out against courses and resources that do not offer value for money," Gillis says.

In a statement, Goldsmiths claims that the university aims to create independent learners who have the skills to succeed and adapt in the world of work. But is there a clear distinction between encouraging independent study and neglect?

The issue of contact hours is problematic at other art colleges, too. At the University of the Arts London the minimum required tuition for a fine art student is one hour of one-on-one per term.

"It's partly the nature of design education," says Peter Watson, the institution's head of academic affairs. "The formal hours might look low, but students tend to go across to tutors when they're working on a project. That's less easy to define - it's not teaching as such but they're getting the advice and they're moving their projects on. We have a lot of part-time staff who are working artists. They get a lot of very good practitioners in."

But the students have a warning for those resting on their laurels regarding teaching contact hours. James Allan, president of the student union at University of the Arts London, predicts a major upheaval. "Personally I think this is going to change in the next year or two. The more students end up paying, the more they're going to be expecting for their money. The demands will rocket. This extra income from tuition fees won't help. They (universities) are going to have to spend it on contact staff."

And so it comes back to managing student expectations. "Trying to define the deal in an art college is quite difficult. It's hard to say: 'This is definitely what you're going to get.' We need to say: 'You're going to get what you need,'" Watson says.

Back in Bristol, Fowler agrees that as students demand more bang for their buck, universities will have to make clear to students exactly what they are getting and why. They must set their own standards - and prove they are meeting them. "It's up to universities to explain what it is they are offering and why it represents value for money."

Students and universities acknowledge that teaching contact hours alone cannot provide a clear measurement of value for money.

"There are some vice-chancellors out there who are incredibly sensitive about contact hours," says Wes Streeting, the president-elect of the National Union of Students.

"The rising consumer mentality, and the detrimental effects it's having on the higher education system, is something that academics and vice-chancellors have to bear in mind," he warns. "I have sympathy with the argument that contact hours are a crude measure. The problem is that all too often that argument is used as a cop-out to explain away the fact that some students are dissatisfied with the time they have and what's done with it."

The issue will become more pressing come 2009, when a review of tuition fees is due, Streeting says. "If the cap is lifted, the pressure will increase within institutions to demonstrate value for money through a whole raft of crude measures. We will be having parents saying: 'What are we getting for our investment?'"

Universities could face a barrage of students asking for a refund if they haven't received the series of lectures or the contact hours they had been promised. "We know that the number of students complaining is already on the increase. That will only worsen. I don't think the sector is ready for it," Streeting says.

But what of a more sophisticated value calculation? Even the NUS is struggling to propose a viable and attractive alternative. Streeting says the NUS would have to conduct more research into what students want from their contact time and what they would consider a measurement of value for money before any proposals could be put forward.

Universities UK also admits that there is a problem. "In UK higher education, we place substantial emphasis on self-guided learning and do not consider contact hours to be a reliable indicator of quality," a spokesman says. "Degree-taught programmes require students to work more independently than at the A-level equivalent, so the learning experience will always be different from that of a school environment.

"We are proud of overall student satisfaction levels. However, universities do not take this for granted, and they are continually exploring ways to enhance the student experience. Today's students, quite understandably, have demanding expectations, and we must ensure that we understand and are able to respond to these."

So much for the rhetoric, but as yet there is no robust way of measuring and comparing teaching contact hours, leaving some universities trailing in the value-for-money stakes. It is up to institutions to devise a more sophisticated measure, or let prospective students continue to make snap decisions about which institution suits them best based solely on a crude figure.

Average teaching hours by institution type and teaching group size
Type of institutionUp to 5 studentsGroups of 6-15
Russell Group1.02.3
Other pre-19920.52.5
Source: Higher Education Policy Institute

Average scheduled teaching hours by institution type and discipline
SubjectAll universitiesRussell GroupPost-1992Pre-1992 (not Russell)Other
Veterinary, agriculture and related subjects22.226.414.614.6.9
Medicine and dentistry21.321.322.620.7n/a
Engineering and technology19.320.416.20.2n/a
Subjects allied to medicine18.819.318.619.315.7
Physical sciences17.218.914.417.1n/a
Architecture, building and planning16.416.116.516.6n/a
Mathematical and computer sciences15.917.114.416.315.6
Biological sciences14.816.313.814.811.7
Creative arts and design13.
Business and administrative studies12.313.311.912.511.5
Mass communications and documentation12.011.812.312.29.6
Social studies10.910.811.510.411.6
Linguistics, Classics and related subjects10.210.810.29.89.0
Historical and philosophical studies8.
Source: Higher Education Policy Institute

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