Farewell to the duvet degree

January 23, 2003

Ruth Woodfield explains why Sussex University is restructuring its art courses to increase contact time with tutors.

Many arts students will have clocked up far fewer contact hours with teachers than their science counterparts by the time their degree ends.

The rationale is that arts students are developing the traits of independent learning and critical thinking whereas science students have to digest more technical elements within their degree programmes. So, while science students are allocated a lot of laboratory and workshop time, some universities, such as Sussex, have traditionally allocated only four to six hours' teaching contact a week to arts students.

The expectation is that arts students will spend at least another 20 hours independently researching, reading and writing up. The classic small seminar or tutorial, with no more than a handful of students debating complex issues with faculty members - supplemented by a lecture or two - was the natural teaching format.

In the past decade, however, two pressures have led some to believe that this low-contact approach has had its day and a rethink is needed. The first is the advent of tuition fees. When people invest their own money, they focus on returns. Students (and their parents) who are concerned about low contact are less interested in the general value to society of graduates with particular traits than whether their particular learning needs are met and whether their programme represents good value.

The second pressure is widening participation. Where universities aim to triple student numbers but not faculty workloads, small tutorials have given way to large group seminars. Despite new teaching techniques, some students will not always get the attention they need.

Universities are admitting different kinds of students. Arts faculties can no longer assume that all first-years arrive with basic study skills. Some need to learn how to pull out the salient points from a difficult text, how to construct an argument in an essay, how to adequately reference it so as to avoid plagiarism or how to use a computer.

At Sussex, I have just finished analysing the results of a year-long survey of 290 first-years in a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on student perceptions of their starter year. The university has commissioned a separate report on the Sussex-specific findings.

Most respondents reported that they were very satisfied with teaching quality, rating it as excellent or good. Most responding arts students were happy with the level of staff support and contact time, and some said that the low contact hours system was moulding their attitude to study. They were becoming more mature, more self-motivated and had gained a higher degree of esteem.

However, arts students estimated that they did only two hours of independent study a week more than science students (17.73 versus 15.67), and a minority said fewer contact hours did not represent good value. For others - mostly young men - the low-contact system seemed to signal that little work was required to complete the degree. One reported: "I have five hours a week in lectures and seminars, so most of the time I spend sleeping in bed." In general, female arts respondents reported studying nearly five hours a week more than their male counterparts (17.78 versus 13.04).

Sussex, which has been concerned about contact hours for some time, has embarked on a radical restructuring of arts degree programmes. Teaching hours are set to double at the front end of some degrees to give more academic guidance and structure. Contact with personal tutors organised around discussions of academic and personal progress is also set to grow.

This move has dissenters. Some academics believe that when it comes to contact hours, less can be more. In reducing the time students are left to their own devices, they argue, we are pandering to the lowest common denominator and pushy parents. Instead of producing self-reliant graduates, we may end up producing something more mediocre. As one lecturer put it:

"Low contact hours is a current and easy excuse for students who lack calibre and/or motivation, but who don't want to admit to their parents that university life might not be for them."

Pro vice-chancellor Nigel Llewellyn says these concerns are ill founded.

"The university is facing up to the fact that it hasn't really confronted the different attitudes and skill sets of first-years compared with (those in the past)... The outcome for graduating students is the same, but we are being more realistic about the process of achieving it."

Ruth Woodfield is senior lecturer in sociology, School of Social Sciences, University of Sussex.

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