Academics split over teaching contact hours

Lancaster and Manchester move to give students more time with tutors, writes Rebecca Attwood

May 8, 2008

Academics are divided on whether it is a good idea for universities to "guarantee" the amount of teaching contact hours students will receive.

After Lancaster University last month confirmed that it had responded to student demands by guaranteeing that all second and third-year students will receive a minimum of ten hours a week with teaching staff, Times Higher Education sampled the opinions of more than 50 of its readers from a range of disciplines and institutions.

While some think that greater transparency over contact hours can only be a good thing, others feared that such policies would be used by managers "as a stick to beat academics". They also worried that guarantees may fail to recognise that higher education is about self-directed learning.

The polarised nature of the debate emerged this week as the University of Manchester confirmed that two of its departments would set new guidelines on staff-student e-mail response times, encouraging staff to respond to students' e-mails within hours.

The university has also responded to student pressure by agreeing to make changes to its new Arthur Lewis building after students complained that they were denied access to their tutors because its swipe-card system restricted access.

Now one school in the building will formally open its doors to undergraduates for set periods of two hours a day, and social science students will be able to visit their tutors without appointment.

The issue of contact time has provoked passionate opinions among Times Higher Education readers.

According to Roger Cowell, a "knowledge manager" at the University of Leeds, guaranteeing blocks of time to students could lead to students trying to litigate for breach of contract.

"Tutors should be available to students, collectively and individually, but guaranteed contact time is an idea for which returning to drawing boards was designed," he said.

Geoffrey Pullum, professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, was sceptical that students would actually take up the offer.

"I work with my door open and don't discourage interruptions - but very few take me up on it. And I have often seen sessions that students had requested underattended when they were actually laid on.

"Demanding more education for the money is always a popular flag for students to haul up the flagpole, but not all of those who salute the flag turn up for the extra tutorial sessions."

Others praised the idea. Paul Hopkins, a visiting fellow at Newcastle University, said: "As a parent of a university student and also as a 'service provider', I welcome clarification of what services will be provided for the tuition fees that are being paid."

Andrew Blake, associate dean of the School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London, said that guaranteed tutorial time was "all well and good" as long as what's guaranteed is "quality time".

"That means small group or individual tuition with experienced and fully qualified permanent members of staff, not 20:1 'seminars' led by nervous research students."

Sue Powell, reader in English at the University of Salford, said students were "often completely lost" if left to direct themselves.

"The majority come with less strictly academic ability than in the past and far less acceptance of the need to read and study than in the past," Dr Powell said.

"More self-direction leads to more plagiarism. Just as spoon-feeding is necessary for toddlers or they will not be able to eat by themselves, so today we are dealing with very many academic toddlers who need to be spoon-fed at first and may then develop into healthy young students who can fend for themselves."

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, said most student learning did not require face-to-face contact. He said it would be "fairer to both students and teachers to have their learning needs met within a specified time - most of which can be met on the internet".


Times Higher Education received more than 50 responses from readers who were asked for their views on whether universities should set minimum contact hours. Here are some of their opinions:

"It is the job of tutors and institutions to coax students into becoming independent, self-directed, confident learners. The UK is now developing a culture among institutions where students who are lagging behind on their courses seek alternative help away from their institutions by investing more money in personal tuition in order to fill their knowledge gaps or by cheating their way through assignments by paying someone else to do it for them. Higher education institutions need to have a balance so that individual needs are catered for without getting into a situation where students are spoon-fed."

Tamjid Mujtaba, research officer, Institute of Education

"I do believe that some universities are not providing a sufficient number of tutorials and lectures and use 'self-directed' learning as an excuse to cut costs. I believe that the guaranteed contact time may be a very good strategy for certain universities/subjects to attract students, but this strategy is not universally applicable."

Robert Weinzierl, senior lecturer in the faculty of life science, Imperial College London

"A real university experience is about the wider environment of a university, the way a higher learning community interacts, creatively and critically, and about so very much that occurs beyond the classroom. Universities that fail to provide a true higher learning community, above and beyond contact time, will fail to provide world-class university experiences for their students."

Graeme Harper, director, National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, Bangor University

"In a mass system, with current resource levels, there is not the possibility of extensive individual, independent learning, which needs one-to-one support."

Ian McNay, professor emeritus, higher education and management, University of Greenwich

"I am personally in support of a reasonable 'open door' policy for students and have found over the years that if there is clear communication between academics and their students then both parties are able to come to a reasonable and workable compromise for access."

Nicola Andrew, senior lecturer, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Community Health, Glasgow Caledonian University

"Where students are being taught in large groups and there is low contact and low interaction (for example, lectures), then guaranteeing a minimum contact time with tutors may indeed be good - if students actually take advantage of it. On the other hand, students' learning might improve more with less contact but higher-involvement teaching methods; for example, two hours in a paired tutorial or well-designed ICT-based support might provide more effective student learning and feedback."

Kate Blackmon, lecturer in operations management, Oxford Said Business School

"It isn't unreasonable to guarantee students (contact time). In the criticisms of this position, there is the underlying proposition that in higher education teaching is a 'bad thing' to be got through in the minimum time possible, (while) it is research that matters most. I think this view should be taken to task. Why cannot teaching be a 'good thing' for both lecturer and student? If resourced adequately (and this is a big if) then should teaching, the interaction and debate and community of learning this brings, not be celebrated?"

Graeme Atherton, partnership manager, Central London Aimhigher Partnership, University of Westminster

"I am appalled at some of the low levels of contact hours that some students experience, and I really feel that the intellectual vibrancy of the university experience is lost if they miss out on being able to talk and discuss and learn from those within the academic community. Interaction in higher education is key, and while distance learning is the only option for some, I still believe that the ideal would be face-to-face contact - of course."

Morven Shearer, senior teaching fellow in the School of Biology, University of St Andrews

"I do not agree with fixed time agreements as I feel that these would be used by management (and some students) as a stick to beat academics. Far better to have a more flexible approach with a combination of set lecture/seminar times interspersed with an 'open door' policy by lecturers that allows students access on an informal basis. Academics must emphasise to students at Year 1 the fact that they are 'reading' for their degrees and that they must, with our assistance, become independent researchers."

Alan Sandry, lecturer in social and political theory, University of Wales Institute Cardiff

The views expressed in this article are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of their institution.

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