Unions blame 'bums-on-seats' attitude for student-to-staff ratio shooting up as high as 46:1, writes Tony Tysome
The ratio of students to academics at some universities is double the pupil-to-teacher average in state schools, according to an exclusive analysis for The Times Higher .
The University and College Union is demanding action after an analysis by the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that students outnumber academics by more than 30:1 at some institutions. The highest ratio in the sector is 46 full-time equivalent students per academic.
Data supplied for the first time by Hesa, tracing trends between 2000-01 and 2003-04, confirm that average student-to-staff ratios (SSRs) continued to rise in higher education, increasing from just over 16:1 in 2000-01 to more than 18:1 in 2003-04, while pupil-to-teacher ratios in state schools were 17:1 in 2003-04. They are 16:1 currently.
SSRs more than doubled at some higher education institutions over the period.
The trend is the result of institutions pressing ahead with rapid increases in student numbers but failing to match this with an increase in the number of academics, according to union leaders contacted by The Times Higher .
Some complained of rising workloads and stress levels, with seminar groups growing almost as large as lecture groups, and lecturers being "mobbed" by students desperate for more one-to-one work with tutors.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned: "We cannot keep cramming more students into our universities and expect the staff to put in even more unpaid overtime.
"The SSR in universities is now higher than in our schools. Any rise, no matter how small, cannot be tolerated. All institutions must be working to cut down the ratio, not allowing it to creep up."
Wes Streeting, vice-president education for the National Union of Students, said the trend was "profoundly worrying", particularly now that students paid up to £3,000 a year for tuition.
"That the ratio of students to staff in some institutions is as high as 30 to 1 raises serious questions of quality. We call on all universities that have rising SSRs to take immediate action," he said.
A Times Higher analysis of the Hesa figures shows that in 2003-04, Southampton Solent University had the highest SSR among universities, at 30.2 - 53 per cent higher than in 2000-01.
A UCU official at Southampton Solent, who did not wish to be named, said rising SSRs put academics under "enormous pressure". He said: "Workloads have been going through the roof.
"We have been aware for some time that SSRs have been rising, but the management is unwilling to do anything about it. It's definitely a bums-on-seats mentality."
A Southampton Solent spokesman said the university had seen a "significant improvement" in its SSRs since the period covered by the Hesa figures.
Among universities and larger institutes, the Institute of Education, London, saw the biggest percentage increase in student-to-staff numbers, rising by 68 per cent to 20.7 students per academic.
John Jonson, UCU president at the Institute of Education, said: "The institute wants to have more students without recruiting more lecturers to teach them. Staff are already working long hours - it is not helpful to increase their burden further."
A spokeswoman for the institute agreed that the increase in SSRs was due to "substantial growth" in student numbers, but added that the institute was keeping its SSRs "under review".
The institute also experienced the biggest percentage increase in SSRs among pre-92 universities, followed by Durham University, where SSRs rose by 50 per cent to 21.2. Steve Chadwick, director of strategic planning at Durham, complained that the way part-time staff were counted by Hesa skewed the SSR figures.
"We are currently investigating whether our SSRs are genuinely high," he said.
Thanks to a 20 per cent increase in foundation degree student numbers in a year, Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication saw its SSR rocket to more than 46:1 in 2003-04, up from 21.1 in 2000-01.
A Universities UK spokesman said the figures reflected the fact that the sector had been forced to become "more efficient" due to underfunding in the past.
BEST AND WORST
Highest five SSRs in 2003-04
Institution - SSR
- Southampton Solent - 30.2
- University of the Arts, London - 26.6
- Lincoln - 26.4
- Liverpool Hope - 26
- Greenwich - 25.8
LOWEST FIVE SSRS IN 2003-04
Institution - SSR