Amid the drive to widen participation and increase the number of young people receiving a university education, the small matter of actually teaching them deserves more attention. There has been a sea-change in the nature of teaching at university level - at least in the older, more traditional universities - and the full extent of that change has not always been recognised.
Only a decade ago, at the university I attended, class sizes were no more than six or eight per seminar; today, it is not uncommon to have classes of 15 to 20 as the norm. It used to be that most undergraduate seminar teaching was done by permanent members of faculty, but today this is increasingly being undertaken by hourly paid postgraduate students.
These two related changes must be considered urgently.
Larger class sizes have altered the nature of teaching: small-scale tutorials have given way to lecture-based courses and larger seminar groups that offer students less personal contact time. In small classes, students had to join in and could not escape notice if they had not done the work.
The larger seminar groups make it possible for students to go through a whole course without actively participating, and the increasing load of essays to mark makes it difficult to give timely and detailed feedback.
Larger groups are not always a bad thing, however. They can allow for a wider variety of views, a stronger group dynamic and the use of innovative teaching methods - using art or drama in a politics class, for example.
There may already be a variety of good teaching practices to address these changes, but I have never been invited to participate in any teaching development days beyond an initial teacher training course. As someone who has taught undergraduate courses for the past two years and is doing so again this year, I find this a little worrying.
Part of the problem is that I am one of the increasing number of postgraduate students being used by universities to fill in for their shortage of permanent teaching faculty. Simply making classes bigger has not solved the problems created by growing student numbers. Because the number of permanent faculty has not risen in line with the number of students, universities have had to turn to their postgraduate students to cover the extra teaching work. This situation may have been fine as an ad hoc solution to a temporary vacancy, but as an increasingly systematic solution to a systemic problem, it throws up a number of concerns.
What exactly is the nature of university education if most undergraduates now receive a substantial proportion of their teaching from temporary, part-time postgraduate tutors? The opportunities for undergraduate students to be taught by some of the experts in their fields are fast diminishing, and the gap between students and academic faculty is increasing.
Although there are benefits to using postgraduate students to teach, these can be harnessed only if postgraduates are properly integrated into the overall planning, organisation and development of university teaching. And, of course, postgraduates must be respected for the service they provide and paid commensurate to the responsibilities they undertake.
Widening participation is a laudable aim, but we also need to be clear about the structures required to ensure its long-term viability. The changing nature of universities offers opportunities for us to reconsider our teaching practices and, by implication, to rethink the role of universities. It is in these times of transition and flux that the opportunity to reflect, consider and innovate presents itself most clearly - and it is up to all of us in higher education to make the most of this.
Gurminder K. Bhambra