Class sizes spark fears over quality

May 4, 2007

Academics are feeling the impact of increasing workloads and a customer-comes-first attitude towards students too numerous to put names to

As student numbers swell, tutorial groups become unmanageable and paperwork multiplies, lecturers fear they are delivering 'factory' education. Melanie Newman reports

Statistics released exclusively to The Times Higher this week reveal huge variations in the ratio of students to academics at universities in 2005-06.

Student-to-academic staff ratios (SSRs) range from 5.9-1 at Cranfield University to 26.4 at Middlesex University.

The UK average, which includes figures for universities and other higher education institutions, is 16.8.

The data, released by the University and College Union and based on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, include atypical staff and further education students but exclude research-only staff.

They show a broad split between old universities, which tend to have lower SSRs, and the new universities, which have higher SSRs.

Staff at both old and new universities said that a rise in the number of students to staff lay behind their frustrations with respect to workload and concerns about quality assurance.

Increasing student numbers need not mean larger teaching loads or class sizes if universities adapt their teaching and assessment methods, say lecturers. But many academics feared that institutions were slow to recognise this need for change.

"Some senior managers take a view that bums on seats are scalable - just build bigger lecture theatres," said one academic at Durham University, which has the national average SSR of 16.8.

While extra students in lectures might make relatively little difference, he explained, small-group teaching was clearly affected. "Witness the loss of tutorials in many courses," he added.

An academic at Exeter University, which has an SSR of 17.7, said the institution was teaching first-year modules in his subject in "tutorials"

of 35 students or more every fortnight. "This combination of group size and frequency would have been unthinkable 20 years ago," he said.

Mick Jardine, a member of the University and College Union's national executive committee, said: "With seminars of 20 or 30 it becomes impossible to learn students' names, reinforcing the sense of 'factory' education."

While some academics predicted that students would soon be protesting over the lack of one-to-one time, Dr Jardine suggested students did not always object to large groups, because they allowed them to get away with underpreparation.

An academic at Liverpool Hope University, which has an SSR of 20.3, said:

"In my larger seminar groups of 24, the students form small groups and do not interact as a larger group - in contrast to the same course two years ago, which had 16 students who all knew each other."

She added: "Older universities draw a lot of funding for research activity.

But with larger numbers and more marking - which has to be done in the same time but takes longer - there is less time to be research active, so the circle goes round again."

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that while lower SSRs did not necessarily mean better teaching, they were likely to reflect a larger number of staff across more disciplines.

"This will give the institution flexibility and their students will benefit from this," he said.

But he added: "The reason they have lower SSRs is that they do more research, and there is evidence among older universities with higher SSRs that a higher proportion of teaching is provided by non-academic staff."

The difference between SSRs in pre and post-1992 institutions may reflect a shift towards teaching-only academics in the latter.

But one academic at Edge Hill University said: "I don't think research is being squeezed out. In fact, it's being given a greater emphasis as Edge Hill has to compete with more established universities. Colleagues are generally teaching less as their research is valued."

SSRs also vary according to subject and the differences can be greater between disciplines in one university than between different institutions.

A spokeswoman for Middlesex University said: "Student-to-staff ratios are always lower for science - especially medicine, dentistry and pure sciences. We offer relatively little in this area. Most Middlesex students study business, computing, humanities and the arts." Despite the high SSR at Middlesex, teaching quality remained high, the spokeswoman said.

Many academics' biggest gripe is the increase in administrative workload, which they say is not necessarily related to SSR or class size.

One Middlesex academic said that because her teaching was mostly at graduate level, she was not affected by the class-size increases that had had an impact on her colleagues' job satisfaction.

"But," she said, "I certainly have felt a significant increase in administrative burdens."

The average SSR for Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development countries in 2004 was 15.5, and for the European Union, 15.7.

Stephen Court, UCU research officer, said the union was asking for more money in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to bring the SSR down to the OECD average.

"We need about another 13,000 full-time-equivalent academics, which would cost about £600 million," he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

I foresee severe problems for the mental health of lecturers who need to process several hundred assessments, mark several hundred essays or other pieces of work in a week, while still needing to prepare lectures as well. I am aware of class sizes in the hundreds in business schools around the country.