Tutorials, £30 an hour. Buy now!

October 14, 2005

Good tutor-student interaction is priceless, says Tim Birkhead. So where can you get some for your kids?

I have a scheme to boost academics' salaries. It's an idea that embraces recent changes in higher education, acknowledges European employment law (namely the 37-40-hour week) and most important, will improve the education of countless undergraduates.

Anticipating parent-lecturer associations in response to fee increases, Frank Furedi ( Times Higher , July 29) said he didn't want to meet the parents. I don't want to meet them either (on that basis), but it is inevitable. Fee hikes make it a certainty that parents will want to know if they'll get added value for the threefold increase in fees. I should know; I have three children at university myself.

So what constitutes value for money? A good degree delivered via interactive small-group teaching - in other words, tutorials, the bedrock of the Oxbridge system. Elsewhere, tutorial provision is patchy and group sizes are larger. One-to-one is best; groups of five or six are OK; anything bigger loses its effectiveness. During an open-day visit with my son, our host proudly announced that at his university they had done away with tutorials. One parent asked: "So if my daughter were ill in her hall of residence room, you wouldn't know?"

"That's right," our host replied, before realising his blunder. The disgruntled murmur from the audience said it all.

I'm a firm believer in tutorials. Tutorials are simply the most fruitful form of teaching and learning. They create essential pastoral care but, more important, provide a rare opportunity for undergraduates to engage with lecturers. Such interactions are essential: they encourage undergraduates to construct cogent arguments (and defend them). What better training for the real world? Tutorials also allow lecturers to provide crucial feedback and encouragement.

Tutorials need to be structured, but the best ones are unconstrained. In some universities they have become bureaucratically stultifying exercises in uniformity, attempting to minimise damage from dull or disinterested tutors; much better to relegate dull tutors to other tasks than punish the staff (and undergraduates) with a tutorial "system". Free-ranging discussion in tutorials sparked by the interests of the tutor and students is among the most rewarding aspects of teaching and learning.

So where's the money-making scheme? Paying for a university education will automatically turn undergraduate courses into an extension of school - and private school, at that. Many pupils who perform well at private school do so because of smaller classes, but also because they have private tutors.

Here's how my system will work. We will follow European Union employment law and stick rigidly to our 40-hour week but use the remaining 20 hours most academics usually work to provide, in our own time, private one-to-one tutorials. At a modest £30 per hour we could increase our salaries substantially. The beauty is that this system will be both self-selecting and subject to market forces. Academics who don't like teaching won't bother and students who don't want the extra work won't apply. The ethics may appear dubious, especially as it unduly favours affluent students. But as the increase in fees will eradicate poor students, that won't be an issue.

As well as offering personal, friendly tuition we can almost guarantee a first-class degree or, at the very least, an upper second. We just have to hope no one notices that they all get upper seconds or first-class degrees anyway.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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