Universities are turning into degree "production lines", lecturers' leaders argued this week as they published figures showing that the national student-to-staff ratio is worse in higher education than in schools.
A report by the Association of University Teachers this week showed that the SSR had increased almost 150 per cent in the past three decades from nine students per lecturer in the 1970s to 21 students per lecturer today.
This contrasts with falling class sizes in schools, where there is an average of 18 pupils per teacher.
"These figures lift the lid on the best-kept secret in education - namely that university students now encounter larger class sizes and have less contact with hard-pressed staff than they did when they were at school," said Matt Waddup, assistant general secretary at the AUT.
"The higher education experience is moving away from what university life should be all about - regular contact between students and staff that encourages personal and intellectual development. These figures support what our members have been telling us for a long time - that the system is becoming increasingly production-line based."
The AUT's report, Packing them in , also compares SSRs around the world, using data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It shows that over a five-year period to 2003, UK universities had a higher SSR than the OECD average.
Although the OECD says that comparisons of figures for tertiary education should be viewed with caution because it is difficult to compare like with like, the AUT report concludes that "a picture emerges that shows the UK at a considerable disadvantage".
The study shows that only France has an SSR comparable to the UK.
The AUT will use the figures to strengthen its case for higher pay next year. The AUT and its sister union Natfhe are demanding at least a third of the expected £1 billion annual additional income from top-up tuition fees. "This is yet more evidence that staff are delivering huge productivity and that is why they deserve higher salaries," Mr Waddup said.
The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association disputed the AUT's method of calculating the figures, arguing that the SSR was 18.2:1. A spokesman said it was "unreasonable" to make comparisons with the 1970s as productivity in all sectors had changed dramatically since then and the former polytechnics were not included in figures then. "Technological developments and more efficient teaching" had had an impact, the spokesman said.