Lancaster guarantees students minimum weekly contact time with tutors

April 10, 2008

Undergraduates will be guaranteed a minimum of ten hours' contact time with tutors each week across all second and third-year courses at Lancaster University, after calls for more teaching time from students.

First-years will be assured of at least nine hours' weekly tuition.

Amanda Chetwynd, the pro vice-chancellor responsible for the student experience, said: "We did it because we have a good story to tell - we do a lot of teaching. We surveyed all our courses so that we knew what the baseline for contact hours was."

A "handful" of courses had failed to reach the ten-hour target, she added, and extra tuition would be built into them in 2008. The minimum-contact-hours commitment will be included in prospectuses for the next academic year.

The changes come amid increasing concern in the sector about delivering a better "experience" to fee-paying students who are making increasing demands for improved contact time and facilities. The issue of contact hours is becoming a key factor in the competition for students, and it is likely to intensify should tuition fees be raised after the 2009 review.

Lancaster's commitment has provoked a debate at the university. In its senate in January, heads of department argued that staffing implications had not been taken into account. One senate member pointed out that it was difficult to persuade students to attend the teaching sessions they already had, while another complained that the commitments were focused on quantity not quality.

The move was in part prompted by student demand. Some students running for election to Lancaster's student union officer positions this year promised to campaign for more contact hours.

Andrew Payne, who unsuccessfully ran for student president, said in a hustings speech quoted on his Facebook page: "If I was voted in as the next LUSU president, I would run a campaign to fight for as much tutor-student interaction time as possible."

George Green, a lecturer in creative writing at Lancaster, questioned whether the proposals would meet students' demands. "I don't believe the students are looking for more lectures and seminars. They want lecturers to be available whenever they want them."

Lancaster's academics already offer an "office hour", when students can drop in to discuss their work with their tutors.

"The problem is that a tiny minority of academics will not see students outside these hours, as they see being available during office hours as fulfilling their responsibilities to students," Dr Green said.

"There's also a problem with casualisation. Staff who are paid for a few hours per week aren't going to make themselves available 24/7."

Arrangements are best worked out between lecturer and student on an individual basis, he said. "Academics should be willing to see students and students should accept that academics are busy."

In a briefing document, Proposals for a Set of Commitments on Academic Contact, Professor Chetwynd said that lectures should normally be given by academic staff and that the content of lectures and seminars will be "determined and monitored" by academics.

She also said that seminar groups should not exceed a student-to-staff ratio of 15:1 and students should be given individual feedback on their work as quickly as possible and within four weeks at the most.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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