I have to tell you that I was, at least at the beginning, a very eager student. I had been working for two years in a bank (yes, I know, these days that’s like saying I was a drug pusher), and then decided to go to university. I was accepted for my course in June 1974. The letter confirming my admission gave the name of my tutor. I took this to mean it was time to contact him, and so on 22 June of that year, some three and a half months before the course was due to begin, I knocked on his door. My tutor (actually a wonderful man) was startled and told me that he could not remember any student ever having previously contacted him so early. When the course did begin, I probably startled him a few times because I was in and out of his office constantly. Swot!
Anyway, back to the June 1974 meeting. I asked my tutor-to-be how many classroom hours I could expect once studies began. ‘My word, what an unusual question’ was his response. It turned out that I could expect five hours per week, occasionally six. And so I sailed through my studies. I decided this wasn’t stretching me, so by year 2 I had also enrolled as a student in a completely different subject at another local university, thereby signing up for two degree programmes at two universities at once. But that’s a different story.
Of course university studies are not all about ‘contact hours’. Higher education is not the same as secondary education, and students should read and analyse and assess outside of their formal teaching, and beyond its demands. However, those offering public comment don’t always see it that way. A recent article in the Daily Mail (which is not newspaper I would refer to often) criticised a number of universities for giving students ‘a very raw deal’ and suggested they were not offering good value for money because of the (in their view) inadequate provision of classes. The University of York, they claimed, offered history students fewer than 100 contact hours per year, less than a third of the hours offered to history students at University College London or Northampton University. If the number of hours spent with a lecturer determines quality, then you must study physics at Imperial College London, where you’ll get 516 hours.
So how much does this matter, and what is the significance? The answer is, we don’t know, because we don’t know what learning methods or other pedagogical tools are in use at any of these institutions; we cannot tell whether we are comparing like with like. But more significantly, we have no real shared understanding of what ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ should really look like today. Students are not the same species today as they were in 1974; many of them are now in what we would classify as full-time employment at the same time as doing their studies. Teaching tools, including technological ones, are very different now, and different use is made of them from course to course and from institution to institution.
But we must be aware that those commenting on universities may not be inclined to weigh up all these complex issues. They want to assess our productivity, and they go for what they can easily understand and measure. This may have the effect of condemning some dedicated academics, who are actually working very hard to provide students with good learning and strong support. However, institutions need to get better at explaining what they do, and how it meets students’ real needs. And perhaps we need to accept that, in some cases, students actually are getting less than they need. Perhaps.