University is different from school, isn't it? It's about learning independently, thinking for yourself, getting involved with university life, working with your fellow students and being part of a community of learners rather than just sitting in lectures, right?
Wrong, according to this government and the previous one. Two successive secretaries of state have tried hard to elevate the lecture to a prominence it has not enjoyed since medieval times, when books were so scarce that the few copies had to be read aloud to students.
Put yourself in the present government's shoes. What can we do when we tire of bullying universities to fix access problems caused by parents and schools? Or when harassing them about charging the tuition fees we authorised them to charge becomes dull sport? Let's give them a sermon about not offering enough "contact hours".
The government appears to have embraced the populist media line that students who pay more in fees will expect extra lectures. According to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, students are frustrated because they are not getting more for their money, and are demanding additional guaranteed contact time. Repeating something over and over again does not make it true, especially if you are a politician.
To be fair, universities have not exactly done themselves any favours. Their addiction to public funding has made them vulnerable to every political whim. By assuming the values of their government sponsors, as David Price, of University College London, has argued, they have degraded their aspirations. And by smugly asserting, as Universities UK seems to be fond of doing, that everything in the garden is rosy and standards can be safely left in their self-satisfied hands, they have made themselves into perfect victims.
Even so, the government is wrong about contact. The White Paper uses sloppy manipulation, otherwise known as cheating, to insinuate that more contact increases quality (the report it quotes actually says that the number of class contact hours has very little to do with educational quality). There is meagre evidence that students expect more teaching. I looked at a Facebook site set up to complain that contact hours are too low. It has a grand total of 70 members, only one of whom has contributed to the discussion.
Successive National Union of Students surveys have shown that nearly eight out of 10 students think they get about the right amount of contact. The same surveys show that the main form of contact remains the lecture. Maybe it is universities that are still living in pre-Gutenberg days.
In theory, a contact hour is a slot of time that a student spends with a teacher. How much contact is necessary? Problems with the metric arise immediately. Is a lecture with 500 students worth the same as a one-to-one tutorial? What about social networking? Reading books? Doing an exercise online? Responding to an email? Talking in one of those newer learning spaces with three other students about a problem that's taken a lecturer three hours to devise? Is a bad lecture to count more than a productive hour on the internet? If arts students have five contact hours a week and medics 35, is the arts students' experience only one-seventh as good? The truth is that the idea of the contact hour as a measure of teaching and learning is archaic, a symptom of how out of touch with higher learning our political masters are.
Willetts is right to say that some universities may not be very demanding of their students. We ought to stretch students further so that we develop their strength of mind, empathy and courage. There are too many easy options. But precisely the wrong solutions are more lectures and more bureaucracy. Stretching students to their limits is the opposite of delivering information to them. It requires teachers who stimulate and inspire their classes, who are content with nothing less than excellence in return, and who can concentrate on students rather than being bogged down with regulation.
Instead of getting mired in contact hours, and thus cheapening the university experience, let us look at what makes for effective learning in higher education through the students' eyes. They appreciate personal communication with their lecturers, of course; that's one aspect of a good experience and something that English universities continue to do well.
Students also learn a lot through working with their peers and on their own. They see conventional (information delivery) lectures as far less useful than interactive ones, in which lecturers share their enthusiasm for their subject and motivate them to find out more for themselves. Students acquire knowledge and wisdom through the high-quality exchange of ideas. Networking has always been a source of much learning.
But as Mark Twain said: "Often, the less there is to justify a custom, the harder it is to get rid of it." Putting contact hours and lectures-as-information-delivery out of the collective academic mind would be a tough undertaking.
"Student workload", an alternative suggested in the White Paper, will not do: it is based on dubious self-reporting (by students, of the time they spend in private study) rather than actual learning time required. And it does not capture the essence of good teaching and learning. Of course, what matters is not the mere number of hours at all but rather the quality of the experience a student enjoys during that time. While much of that quality depends on the effort a student exerts - nothing comes of nothing - expert teaching can help to transform effort into results. Achieving high quality demands a single-minded concentration on learning, coupled with extraordinary expectations of learners and the capacity to learn from mistakes. The challenge is to engineer teaching systems that focus on student learning, connecting participants with every aspect of the process.
So, what must we do to escape the tyranny of the contact hour? First, we should expect more from students. There is no painless road to success, whether through minimal work, constant feedback or easily acquired content reproduced from any source.
Students ought to return the favour by proactively putting their teachers under pressure to perform. Lord Robbins' observations in his 1963 report have stood the test of time: "A passive student is a contradiction in terms; and if it is true that a good teacher makes good students it is also true that good students make good teachers. Higher education should attract, and in some measure create, students who will make demands upon their teachers, and teachers who can both satisfy those demands and stimulate further curiosity and intellectual energy."
Next, we need the government and its agencies, such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to get to grips with what higher education is actually like in the 21st century. It is not a cloistered world that needs to be shaken up by watering down the things that make it different from the rest of education. These bodies should make more effort to reverse the process of infantilising universities and the patronising culture that defines undergraduates as immature beings who cannot look out for themselves. Students in universities should be treated as partners, not as customers or schoolchildren.
This means dumping the fashionable rhetoric of guaranteed contact hours, Key Information Sets and student charters - and replacing it with an appreciation that adults are responsible enough to make up their own minds and mature enough to suffer the consequences of their personal mistakes rather than blaming others for them. Hefce's own research revealed that students do not use information about teaching quality as a way of choosing the university they want to attend. The most recent NUS survey showed that students are enthused by wanting to learn - and by stimulating teaching. Let's start treating them as if their views mattered.
Lecturers and their institutions need to remind themselves that university teaching is not a delivery process. On the contrary, it's a sort of conversation - and in a conversation, listening is as important as speaking. This implies less conventional lecturing and more communication. It is a national disgrace in 2011 that the most common form of contact hour is still the lecture.
It is not surprising that today's students believe that the main thing that would improve the quality of their experience is more interactive experiences. Just in case you wondered, they do not want more online learning either: when asked if they felt that more teaching should be delivered online, three-quarters said "no". They want to be fully involved, not treated as accessories or repositories for information. This leads to the need for more student responsibility. Active participation in shaping the curriculum and teaching methods, and involvement in evaluation and quality assurance, build accountability and lead to better outcomes all round.
Perhaps the most telling evidence that we are getting this part wrong comes from the 2010 NUS survey. About 90 per cent of students want to be involved in shaping course design, but only 59 per cent say that they are. The primary basis of a positive student experience and lasting learning outcomes is taking an energetic part in the life of the university - and collaborating with fellow students and staff, both in class and out of it. Providentially this way of thinking about "contact" fits well into the culture of academic collegiality.
It would help if UUK let go of its self-righteous complacency about contact and quality. We do not want to be lectured about what makes universities different from schools - jolly good for everyone, desperately underfunded, but very nice indeed for students and just leave us alone to do what we have always done, please. Less defensiveness and more action would make things easier. We need a commitment from the peak body to a vision of higher education teaching as in need of unremitting improvement.
To achieve improvement, we will need to apply good practice. There is plenty of it around, but to get the process going, we should not be averse to some robust management and end-user pressure.
What would be better than the dreary proposals in the White Paper? Instead of lumbering universities with requirements to produce Key Information Sets, I would suggest two more practical alternatives, not exclusive of each other.
Absurdly, about £1.5 billion was allocated to research through performance funding in 2009 and, apart from a few prizes, nil to teaching. The first option would be therefore to introduce some marginal performance funding (say about 1 per cent) for teaching quality. It should be formula-driven and use relatively uncontroversial indicators such as National Student Survey scores.
Two things would happen immediately. First, there would be an instant outcry about the unfairness of reallocating teaching funding based on relative quality. Second, universities would start to take teaching a lot more seriously. What works for research also works for teaching.
The other option is to take a single-minded look at value for money in a regime of increased tuition fees. A better place to start than the number of contact hours or graduate salaries would be the price charged compared with the cost of teaching. If students are to be treated as partners, they are even more entitled to know where their money is going.
The actual cost to universities of producing graduates is much lower than the money universities get to teach them. In simple words, a lot of the funding for teaching cross-subsidises research. Soon there will be another cross-subsidy, from fees that exceed £6,000, because of the government's requirement to use some of this money for bursaries and scholarships.
These subsidies may or may not be a good thing. For example, you might feel that it is worth paying over the odds to enable you to bask in the reflected glory of your university's research reputation. Or you might not think it fair, particularly if its reputation is questionable.
At any rate, prospective students would be right to ask themselves if the extra money they are paying to finance research and widen participation will be reflected in the quality of their own experience - and to select their options carefully.
Point of contact: call for better communication
When David Willetts was shadow secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, he promised that a Conservative government would hold universities to account by publishing information on contact hours and class sizes.
"We need more transparency about what is really on offer to students," Mr Willetts told an audience at the University of Sheffield in 2007.
Some institutions were quick to act. In April 2008, Lancaster University announced that it would guarantee its second- and third-year students at least 10 hours of contact time with tutors each week.
In the same month - and as the University of Manchester launched a review of undergraduate education that aimed to "re-personalise" teaching - Manchester students used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain figures showing that social science students had half as much contact time as Manchester students 20 years earlier.
As minister for universities and science, Mr Willetts has continued to raise the issue, linking contact hours to the right to charge higher tuition fees.
"Universities who wish to charge more for undergraduate courses need to produce compelling evidence as to what the extra money would buy in terms of better teaching, contact time and services for students," he told vice-chancellors last October.
A Quality Assurance Agency inquiry in 2009 suggested that students would benefit from clearer information on the nature and amount of contact with staff. The proportion of time students can expect to spend in "scheduled learning and teaching" is due to form part of the Key Information Sets universities will publish from 2012.
In a report published this week, the QAA sets out guidance on how to communicate information about contact hours. "Contact hours are one of a number of measures taken by some as a proxy for quality and thus an indicator of value for money," says the report, Explaining Contact Hours.
"However...contact time with staff forms one part of an overall approach to learning and teaching that is designed to fit the particular course and subject being studied," it continues.
"There is no evidence to suggest that, taken alone, contact hours offer a meaningful way in which to measure quality." Instead, quality is about "providing an environment that creates the potential for students to succeed in their studies".
The report argues that "virtual" interaction with staff and one-to-one or group feedback on academic work can also be considered contact time even though it might not be formally scheduled. Given the wide variation in the form and function of contact time, the report adds, it would be "challenging and perhaps undesirable" to attempt a universal definition.