Educational quality: the student to faculty ratio

We know that the global university rankings compiled by the magazine Times Higher Education use student-staff ratios as one the key criteria for the league tables. Interestingly, the only Irish institution that makes it into the top 100 on that basis is Dublin Institute of Technology. And we also know, in the context of the continuing budget cuts in Ireland and the anticipated further reductions in public expenditure later this year that the position of Irish universities in this regard will erode further; indeed, quite apart from the budget cuts there is now the public sector recruitment embargo that has, with some modifications, also been applied to higher education.

In fact, even in much better times the student-staff ratio in Ireland has been bad by international standards. And it is probably fair to say that neither our politicians nor, if we’re honest, the general public really believe that in terms of academic faculty we are under-staffed. There are however not just global rankings affected by this, there are also major pedagogical considerations. In principle the Irish system of higher education has subscribed to the British model of teaching that uses the lecture as a tool for communicating and disseminating information and an evaluation of that information, and small group teaching (in sessions variously described as tutorials, classes, seminars, demonstrations, supervisions etc) to undertake discussion, critique and analysis. Small group teaching is also used to allow students to develop their presentation and communication skills.

These latter sessions only have intrinsic merit if they are genuinely conducted in small groups. If you take the Oxbridge model, ‘small groups’ ideally consist of one student, but perhaps two or three are also acceptable. That was never a viable option in Ireland. When I first began lecturing my tutorial groups typically consisted of eight or so students, but I am told by academics from around the system that it is far from unusual to be teaching to upwards of 15 – at which point it clearly is no longer a small group session.

Maybe such education is no longer affordable. But if it isn’t, we need to undertake a proper pedagogical analysis of what could be an acceptable alternative; and we may also need to persuade the international educational community that the student-staff ratio is not an appropriate criterion for compiling international league tables.

But what we should not do is to imply some ongoing commitment to staffing levels that permit small group teaching while at the same time standing by as our ability to undertake that is eroded beyond a point at which we can still actually do it. We have, I think, reached that point, and we had better get serious about developing a model of higher education that can hold out a realistic promise of a quality student experience within our existing and likely future constraints.

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2 Comments on “Educational quality: the student to faculty ratio”

  1. Cian Says:

    The issue isn’t merely one of large numbers in tutorials. In my time in DCU (and I’m in final year of my degree at this point) I can count the number of modules that had tutorials on the fingers of one hand. While some of the lecturers are well able to facilitate discussion and analysis in lectures, these are far from all of those teaching us. A humanities module lacking either discussion in class, or tutorials is in my experience pretty pointless, and we’d have been just as well off had we been told what book to read, and to email questions to the lecturer/stick them on moodle.

  2. Jilly Says:

    Cian makes a good point (and it’s far from unique to DCU). The staff/student ratio in Irish universities is now so bad that in my 10 years of teaching, I’ve NEVER had seminar groups of less than 20, and frequently they’re higher than that: at which point it simply isn’t a seminar. And some modules now have to be run with no seminar provision at all, a situation only likely to increase as the college budgets are cut and cut.

    You only have to do some very basic mathematics to see how this works. First year humanities modules in many of the larger departments/universities now contain anywhere between 200 and 500 students for lectures. To split even 200 students into seminar groups of as many as 20 is going to cost 10 tutor hours, and of course to split them into groups of the more useful size of 10 students would cost 20 tutor hours. Even the lower figure would cost the best part of 1000 euro a week, after allowing for employer’s PSRI payments, etc. And that’s just for one module, for one year, of one degree. As our part-time budgets get cut and cut, our seminars – already shaky because their numbers are too big – will also have to be cut.

    This issue is a good example of the fact that a public service like higher education actually DOES cost money, and although you can do it cheaply, you really won’t do it as well. This isn’t an issue of ‘efficiency’, it’s an issue of quality costing money.

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