'Underlying calculation of Russell Group v-cs' (1 of 2)

December 13, 2012

The University and College Union research officer quoted in Times Higher Education last week deserves credit for publicising an open secret: that our "top" universities claim inflated student-to-staff ratios ("The lecturers who don't teach (but still count)", News, 6 December).

Although the Transparent Approach to Costing data on which Stephen Court bases his report are dodgy to put it mildly, his estimates are likely to be reliable because "elite" universities typically provide fewer contact hours (albeit with smaller classes) than the rest. For example, a 20-credit Year 2 English module at my institution, Bath Spa University, involves 52 hours of teaching, more than three times as many as the equivalent at the University of Leeds.

Since we insist on speaking of teaching "loads", it is obvious why we are more burdened than our esteemed colleagues and also why their research "output" is often higher. A low-value activity with few robust measures of achievement is swapped, where possible, for one that is valued by peers, managers, publishers, research excellence framework panels, newspapers and academics themselves. Much more remarkable is the assertion made by David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, that students might be "content with...limited teaching so long as their university's research reputation is enhanced". To voice the underlying calculation of the Russell Group vice-chancellors so openly is courageous indeed. Why not put his hypothesis to the test and stop misleading students about what they are, in fact, "buying"?

Greg Garrard, National teaching fellow Reader in literature and the environment, Bath Spa University

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