The personal touch

The intimate pedagogical relationship between students and academics sets UK universities apart from the rest of the world. But in an age of mass education and security concerns, the British way of teaching is under threat. Rebecca Attwood reports

May 7, 2009

It is a serious warning: UK universities are in danger of losing a feature that is central to their identity, their reputation and their very purpose as teaching institutions.

Senior figures in the sector believe that with worsening student-to-staff ratios, declining contact hours and some universities resorting to electronic tagging to monitor attendance at lectures and seminars, the personal interactions between students and academics that are key to the learning process are in jeopardy.

Writing in these pages last year, Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, said that reports in Times Higher Education told "a troubling story": the "widespread recognition that personal learning and teaching interactions between students and teachers are becoming more and more strained by the dramatic growth in student numbers".

The situation was exemplified, Gilbert added, by an academic who argued that university teachers could no longer be expected to know their students by name.

Why does this matter? The evidence, he said, was clear: "High-quality learning outcomes are rooted more than anything else in rich personal interactions between teachers and learners."

In recent months, the Government has heard concerns about the quality of interaction between students and academics. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills received an analysis called The Future of Higher Education - Teaching and the Student Experience. Its author, Paul Ramsden, the head of the Higher Education Academy, describes the "intimacy of the pedagogical relationship" as "a special quality" that differentiates the UK's higher education system from continental Europe's.

Proximity of staff to students, teaching methods centred on the idea of learning as a partnership, and students receiving personal attention from staff are all qualities "intimately associated" with the reputation of the sector and the standard of teaching it provides, the report says.

The Future of Higher Education argues that if these features were lost, the consequences would be profound. But the feedback teachers give students and "the personal component of teaching" may be the first qualities affected by cutbacks, which would threaten the "UK brand".

Meanwhile, The Sustainability of Learning and Teaching in English Higher Education, a study by the Financial Sustainability Strategy Group (FSSG) and JM Consulting for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, goes so far as to call the quality of personal interaction between students and academic experts "the critical distinctive feature" of UK universities. "To lose this competitive position would be damaging to the economy and reputation of the UK," it argues.

Worries about teaching relationships being put under pressure are not new. An edited volume published in 1992, Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education, cites figures from the Association of University Teachers reporting that between 1970-71 and 1988-89, student-to-staff ratios went from 8.5:1 to 11.5:1.

When that volume came out, Diana Warwick was general secretary of the AUT. "It is one of the most singularly envied characteristics of British higher education that students who need individual attention can get it," Warwick, who is now chief executive of Universities UK, said at the time. "Our reputation must suffer with every increase of student-to-staff ratios."

Since then, funding per student has improved, but there are few indications that ratios have. Student-to-staff ratios in the university departments examined by the FSSG had either stayed the same or deteriorated, and the report concludes that ratios have worsened by 10-15 per cent in the past 15 years. While these figures are no measure of teaching quality, they are an indicator of how accessible staff are to students, it says.

Graham Gibbs, an honorary professor at the University of Winchester and co-editor of Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education, says that in 1997, Lord Dearing's review of higher education accepted the evidence that larger classes adversely affect student performance.

"Funding per student since Dearing should have made it possible to limit further degradation of the quality of student learning. However, students have seldom benefited in terms of class sizes, which have continued to increase," Gibbs argues.

"This is particularly the case in the first year, when many institutions in effect cheat students by using the available funding in other ways, especially on academics' research time where research assessment exercise funding had declined, and on smaller classes in the third year, when it is often too late."

The authors of the FSSG report visited six institutions - the universities of Brighton, Manchester, Oxford Brookes, Sheffield, Warwick and Wolverhampton - to gather first-hand evidence.

Students told them that small-group teaching and contact with enthusiastic and expert staff were among the things they valued most about university teaching. Slow feedback, reduced contact hours and "invisible" staff were high on the list of factors most likely to attract adverse comment.

The universities had developed "coping strategies" to deal with the pressures on staff caused by larger student numbers, including teaching in bigger groups, using a wider range of staff (including postgraduates) and replacing some lectures with online learning.

Many of these strategies had improved teaching and learning, academics told the researchers, but some of the results had been deleterious. There had been an "effective breakdown of the system of pastoral tutoring in some cases", "only partly compensated" for by better student support services.

In addition, "staff-intensive" forms of learning such as laboratory sessions, field trips and essay tutorials "have become a smaller part of the student experience in some disciplines".

Worryingly, "typical" comments from staff were that lecturers did not know their students by name; that their ability to deliver prompt and comprehensive feedback was under pressure; that the student experience was less enjoyable than it had been in the past; and that they feared that universities may be failing to fully develop some of their students' potential.

According to the report, some of these changes are the inevitable consequence of moving to a mass system of higher education, and intelligent strategies have protected the average student. However, it says that the loss of feedback and tailored individual support to students is "a serious concern" and needs to be addressed "as a high priority".

The authors argue that existing staff-to-student ratios are "not sustainable" in the medium term without harming the quality and reputation of UK teaching. They call for more funding to tackle the problem.

Ramsden agrees that the status quo cannot continue. "We are stretched greatly and we can't continue in the same way without some injection of resources; otherwise we will lose something that is really distinctive."

Ramsden, who has worked in Australia, says higher education is "much more anonymous" there and in other countries. "On the whole, class sizes are much larger and there isn't the same amount of personal contact between undergraduates and their tutors."

He believes that the UK must not go the same way. "Overall student satisfaction in Australia, using the same questions posed by the UK's National Student Survey (NSS), is not as high."

Both Ramsden and Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and chairman of the group that produced the FSSG report with JM Consulting, are keen to emphasise that the overall quality of teaching is holding up so far, as demonstrated both by the high ratings afforded the sector in the NSS and its continued appeal to international students.

However, Crossick thinks that lower NSS ratings given in relation to the quality of feedback are a sign of strain. "I take feedback as a proxy for 'can I communicate with the people who are teaching me and get responses from them?' I think it is revealing that this is the area where otherwise very satisfied students are least satisfied," he says.

So where, and in what circumstances, does this precious personal interaction take place? It does not always have to be face-to-face contact, as Derek Rowntree, professor of educational development at The Open University, explains.

"If one is to enjoy learning, and benefit to the utmost from it, one needs one's developing understanding to be regularly appraised, corrected where necessary and encouraged. This demands contact with a tutor who is familiar with, and cares about, how one's work is progressing," he says.

"However, as The Open University has demonstrated by achieving NSS top ratings on feedback year after year, one does not need to meet this tutor face to face. Effective feedback can be provided at a distance - in writing, by telephone or online," he says.

More traditionally, an obvious place for interaction is the seminar. Small-group teaching creates an environment of "engagement and challenge", Crossick says.

"It is not just about the member of staff challenging students, but also students challenging one another. Some of the most successful classes are ones in which students start arguing with each other. That is not an accident - the tutor plays a very important role in creating an atmosphere of mutual trust in which that can happen."

He believes this teaching model also has an impact on students' attitudes towards learning.

"If one has taught in other countries, one notices the difference. Students here are much more open and questioning - they don't simply take things on authority."

Ultimately, Crossick believes, the model encourages distinctive qualities in the UK graduate, including flexibility and problem-solving skills.

George Macdonald Ross, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Leeds and director of the Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies, says that on the European mainland, teachers tend to be "remote figures who give a periodic performance on the platform".

"The students are expected to absorb it and then regurgitate it, and that's about all that happens," he says. "In many countries, small-group teaching is almost unheard of until postgraduate level."

But in UK universities, he says, there is "at least the folk memory" of a very different model, with primary learning taking place as an apprenticeship between the experienced teacher and their student.

Here, a session in which the teacher comments on what has been produced by the student is at the centre of teaching, with lectures regarded as more peripheral.

"When I was a student at the University of Cambridge, I was given the impression that what really mattered was individual supervision each week, and that lecture courses were rather like books: they were recommended, you could go to them if you wanted to, but they didn't define the syllabus; they were sort of an optional extra," Ross says.

The focus of teaching ought to be on getting students to do something and giving them feedback on it, rapidly, rather than "just filling their heads with facts" in lectures, he adds.

Colin Mason, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde, has found that the single most significant personal interaction between staff and students occurs during the undergraduate dissertation.

When he taught at the University of Southampton, his students had three or four one-to-one meetings with tutors in the summer term to shape up the project, and then several more when students were analysing and writing up their data.

"For most students, that was a significant learning experience. One could see them maturing intellectually and personally over six to nine months of regular one-to-one interaction. Going back to when I was a student in the early 1970s, that was also the most valuable part of my degree. It was what convinced me that I wanted to do a PhD and become an academic," Mason says.

However, he notes that with worsening student-to-staff ratios, such interaction does not occur with the same intensity as it did in the past. Moreover, his impression is that expectations of the amount of work that students are expected to do for dissertations have declined. One-to-one meetings allow little wiggle room for students to avoid doing their work - a fact that Oxbridge tutors are well aware of.

"I always say to students when they arrive that if they so much as cough I will know," says Richard Partington, senior tutor at Churchill College, Cambridge.

"It is not quite true, but it certainly is the case that we are able to intervene very quickly when someone runs into difficulties because there is so much contact time. You are often able to deal with problems early on and nip them in the bud.

"I certainly wouldn't say I become friends with all the students I teach, but one establishes a relationship that is essentially one of working equals quite quickly. It breaks down if they are not working, and then it can get a bit difficult - but that's the same in any working environment."

Another theme that emerges when talking to academics about learning and teaching is the importance of informality.

Many say that even chance encounters can matter, but they also report that the opportunities for serendipity are decreasing.

Robert Weinzierl, a senior lecturer in biology at Imperial College London, says that meetings with students outside class have become more difficult as a result of tighter campus security.

"Ten to 15 years ago, a student could come directly into the building and knock on my open office door for a spontaneous chat. Nowadays, they have to make an appointment in advance. Once they arrive, they must then ask the security desk to contact me before they can enter the building and come to my office.

"The increased formality deters some students because they think that their problem or question is not serious enough to go through this elaborate arrangement, and the opportunity to deal with little problems quickly as they arise is lost."

British higher education is famous for its system of personal tutors, in contrast with many other countries, where they are rare or unknown.

According to Paula Hixenbaugh, professor of learning and teaching at the University of Westminster and co-editor of Personal Tutoring in Higher Education (2006), a feeling of belonging and strong relationships are central to a positive student experience.

She believes that personal tutoring may hold the key. "Those of us who teach have known for a long time that good relationships are at the heart of the educational process," she says.

But even in the UK, personal tutors are not universal, and in many departments their role is changing.

Ian McNay, emeritus professor of higher education and management at the University of Greenwich, says that other university staff are taking on responsibilities that were once part of the personal tutor's remit.

"Central counselling systems and learning support units have reduced the range of interactions between teachers and students beyond the classroom, and the system is more impersonal because of that."

In a bid for efficiency, some departments now have centralised drop-in tutorial offices.

An article published last year in the journal Teaching in Higher Education said such trends meant that "part or all of the personal tutor's role may no longer exist or can be very specifically defined", and a 2006 report by the Quality Assurance Agency, based on an analysis of quality audit reports at 70 separate institutions, found that while many universities had attempted to improve their personal tutoring systems, some had been "placed under strain by expansion in student numbers, decreased staffing levels and other factors".

However, Hixenbaugh is optimistic that the benefits of personal tutoring are being increasingly recognised.

"In an era of mass higher education and less and less contact with students, our research evidence shows that both staff and students see it as important. They are saying: 'Let's put resources into this and recognise that this is where real learning takes place.' I think this is happening. Universities are looking at new ways of forming communities."

Westminster, for example, now encourages relationships to form between students in the same tutorial group as well as between individual students and tutors, by requiring that groups meet four times during their first semester.

Then there is the issue of names - both the way students address their teachers and whether it is feasible to expect academics to remember their students' names when there are so many of them.

"I think it is absolutely bog-standard in British universities for students and staff to address each other by their forenames. That would be absolutely unheard of on the Continent," Ross says.

"But the reality in most institutions is that the vast majority of students feel that they are not known by staff at all. I think this is tragic.

"When I started my career, we had a staff-to-student ratio that remained for a long time at 1:8. Now it is about 1:28. It is very difficult to establish the same relationship with one's students when the numbers are so large."

The only way of overcoming the problem, Ross says, is to make establishing an individual relationship with as many students as possible a priority for academics.

"Contact time is worth its weight in gold - don't waste it on things such as lectures where you are not interacting directly with students."

Ross encourages personal interaction by insisting that students come to see him to receive their essay marks.

"It is well known that if you return the essay with a mark, most students will read the mark but not the comments. Instead, I get them to have a very brief one-to-one tutorial in which they tell me what mark they think they have got and why, on the basis of the comments I have given them. Then they internalise the assessment criteria."

This is a very good way to improve the quality of what is produced, he says.

More generally, a reduction in student-to-staff ratios "would help enormously", Ross adds, but he thinks they would have to improve dramatically for it to make any difference - something he calls "pie in the sky".

"What one has to do is think of imaginative ways of making sure proper relationships are established, despite the difficulties," he says.

And Ross offers one piece of free advice to university pro vice-chancellors who are keen for staff to know their students' names. The obvious tactic would be to reward teachers for remembering them, but he would invert the strategy.

"What you should do is have a reward mechanism for the students to be known by members of staff. This would encourage them to speak up in class, send emails to their teachers and come to see them during office hours," he says.

THE UNIVERSITY VIEW: WE WANT TO 'REPERSONALISE' LEARNING

Tutors at the University of Manchester must proactively make contact with their students at least once a week as part of a series of measures designed to "repersonalise" the university experience.

Whether via face-to-face meetings or email, academic advisers will be expected to monitor students' academic performance and their levels of engagement.

Following a review, Manchester will reduce the number of modules it offers to free up time for small-group teaching.

Colin Stirling, vice-president for teaching and learning at Manchester, says: "We have always had personal tutors or academic advisers, but we have now precisely defined a number of responsibilities (for them), not least of which is the requirement that they proactively communicate with students on a weekly basis.

"Realistically, some weeks that might be via email - but we are going to make ourselves available."

According to Stirling, higher education institutions tend to accrete activities and offer an ever-increasing range of module options.

"We are looking to see if there are areas where there might be substantial overlaps in module content, saving staff time from delivering certain types of teaching in order to create the time needed to do small-group and personalised teaching."

However, Manchester insists that students will still have a wide choice. Some lecture classes may increase in size, but Stirling is sanguine about this.

"I don't think it makes any difference at all to the experience if a lecture class of 150 students becomes 250," he says. "But if it allows more small-group teaching experience or regular weekly contact with an academic, that makes a much bigger difference."

There will also be a push towards blended learning, and the university will build a £45 million "learning commons", a flexible social learning space for students that Stirling says will be "flooded with IT facilities".

He admits that the number of students in Manchester now is "phenomenal", but says that despite the massive growth, "most universities haven't really changed the way they teach".

"All we've done is take more students and try to maintain the same model that we have always used, but it is creaking - not just in Manchester, but all over. We recognise the need for change."

When he was a student, staff and students shared a common room, making it easy to get to know each other.

"There aren't enough random opportunities to interact between staff and students now, so we are encouraging it in other ways," he says.

"We shouldn't be viewing our students merely as numbers in anonymous marking codes, because then you don't get the opportunity to identify problems early.

"It is not just about problems, it is about encouragement and reward. It is nice to see a student and to comment that a recent essay was brilliant, to see the glow on his or her face. They take a great deal from that."

THE STUDENT VIEW: 'IT'S IMPORTANT TO FEEL SUPPORTED'

"I am a joint honours student and I have had very different experiences from the two departments," says Isabel Madgwick, who is in the fourth year of a German and history degree at the University of Edinburgh.

"I've come across some absolutely lovely lecturers in history, but the department is so big that you are completely anonymous."

Madgwick has experienced a different atmosphere in the smaller German department.

"They make an effort to get to know your name, to have chats. For example, we had an essay-help session and afterwards we had wine and nibbles - they really make an effort.

"Some of the history lecturers don't tell students their office hours. But the German lecturers tell us and say: 'Any time you need to knock, please do.'

"I got very stressed this year, and it made a big difference to be able to go and see the German lecturers," says Madgwick, 22, whose German seminar groups teach about 12 students, compared with about 25 in her history seminars.

"It definitely would have been a lot harder work without their support and without being treated as an individual. It is really bad if you are paying money to come to university, work really hard and yet (lecturers) still don't even recognise your face."

Catherine Wintrip, 22, who is studying French and German at the University of Leeds, has sympathy for lecturers.

"The personal contact I've had with tutors has been amazing. But some tutors at the university have a large number of tutees.

"The consensus I get from my friends is that we pay so much to be here, we feel like we can demand a good service. I think the pressure lecturers are under is immense."

Nursing student Rachelle Sutton, 26, has found the level of support she has received from tutors on her course of 40 students at Manchester Metropolitan University to be "brilliant".

"If I email my tutor, she replies within a couple of hours. And if any problems or family issues come up, she says she has an open door.

"She's got a little couch in her office and you can chat to her about anything. I think it is really important to feel supported, to know that your tutors are human and not robots who can only talk about timetables and academic things. You feel more at ease."

THE ACADEMIC VIEW: 'A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP IS BEING LOST'

The pressures of contemporary higher education threaten the existence of personal tutors. No wonder students complain about an increasingly impersonal university experience, writes Mary Evans

Once upon a time, most students in higher education could count on being summoned at the beginning of term to meet their "personal tutor". He or she was supposed to be available for general guidance, support and information, or even to act as the soft arm of the law should tutees fail to meet their pedagogical obligations.

In many universities, the personal tutor has now disappeared, at least in the form of a member of academic staff. Instead, the various functions of parenting - the wide continuum that includes encouragement, loaned cash and discipline - that tutors once offered have been replaced by the ministrations of student counsellors and/or members of secretarial and support staff.

Mass higher education and the accompanying endless mantra of "research, research, research" have led to academic staff becoming increasingly wary of the obligation to stand at the coalface of student debt, disillusion and despair.

Yet for most of us who worked in an academic system in which we had personal tutees, the reality of the obligation was usually that there were seldom more than one or two students in any academic year who demanded our care and attention. In the main, the student body was perfectly willing to stay away from tedious old adults.

But the shift away from the in loco parentis model, which of course can still be found in some universities, has had a number of negative consequences.

The first and most obvious is that students have little or no direct access to a person who is both familiar with the demands of academic work and has some previous experience of the problems students might encounter.

Specific difficulties - including mental and physical health issues and lack of money - were always referred elsewhere, but more general concerns about being at university, particularly for students whose families had no previous experience of higher education, were best dealt with by personal tutors.

This is not to suggest that all academics will be the kind of helpful and sympathetic tutor that students may need. But when they withdraw from this function, they send the message that the general progress of students is no concern of theirs, and that their interest stops at the end of the lecture or seminar.

This not only says something about the higher education sector, it also suggests to students that the internal life and dynamic of universities and all large-scale institutions is essentially a formal one: academics teach, students hand in work, end of story.

Given that in many cases a good deal of seminar teaching is now undertaken by postgraduates, the interaction students have with people of a different generation becomes limited, as do chance conversations between tutors and students in which both sides learn something about the process of education. A secretary, however helpful, does not teach and is connected to academic work only by organising its context.

The current pressure on academic staff to publish and do research is just one of the factors that has probably played a part in the growing absence of staff/student relations. Again, the pattern is not universal: along with Oxbridge, institutions such as the University of Warwick continue to provide traditional and supportive academic tutors.

Another factor is the new architecture of universities, with a proliferation of buildings in which access to staff (or anyone else) is controlled by various forms of security, so that the chances of interfaces between staff and students are diminished. Little wonder then that many students find their experience of university to be impersonal.

But perhaps more important than these questions is the way in which the decline in the number of academic tutors says something to students about their relative importance in the academic world.

What is communicated is a complete lack of interest in students, and perhaps even more destructively, the sense that work, including academic study, is an impersonal business in which instrumental considerations are paramount and there is little or no space for the accidental or unscripted exchange.

Generations of students went happily through university without seeing their tutor, and we need to remember this rather than seeing students as a bottomless pit of needs and demands.

Mary Evans is visiting fellow at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics.

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