Paying for tutorials

As English universities face up to what looks like a very challenging funding environment, Oxford University has disclosed that it has raised £1 billion from alumni and supporters and that it will use some of  this money to fund its traditional one-on-one tutorial system. While the university has not (as far as I know) disclosed what these tutorials cost on an annual basis, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, has indicated that the sum raised in its philanthropic campaign (while a European record) is not enough and more will have to be found to keep its traditional teaching methods alive.

While small group teaching has been at the heart of the British (and Irish) higher education system, most universities have long had to abandon it or restrict it for resourcing reasons, and realistically it will prove more and more difficult to sustain it as an idea in the light of very different funding principles now affecting the sector. While I have believed that small group teaching is highly desirable where it is affordable, I have long had doubts about Oxford’s one-on-one tutorials. For me the benefit of small groups is that they are small enough to encourage participation, but also large enough (i.e. more than one) to allow for student interaction with each other, which I believe to be a hugely important part of the learning process. I have moreover heard many times from Oxford graduates about the limitations of their tutorials, particularly where the tutor was struggling with an excessive sense of ego.

In any case, before any politician takes from this the lesson that philanthropy is the answer to under-funding, let me say that I also believe Oxford to be wrong is suggesting that donations can subsidise the recurrent costs of teaching; apart from being an unlikely prospect for most universities, I also think it is wrong in principle; philanthropy should be for capital programmes and start-up projects.

Of course I would congratulate Oxford on the success of its fundraising campaign. But I might just suggest to its donors, if any of them are listening, that there may be better value for money in some other institutions. £1 billion is a hell of a lot of money to need for tutorials.

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4 Comments on “Paying for tutorials”

  1. copernicus Says:

    Well done Oxford University, and good luck to the tutorial system. I have no problems with this method of support if the university’s alumini feel that it is worth continuing this tradition. This would not be news in US where such support is common. I have heard good reports on the tutorial system gnerally although any system has its downside.

    Small tutorial groups are very good, one-to-one tutoring is excellent if it works well. In other RG universities, rarely there is one-to-one contact between the lecturer and the student in a formal setting except in project supervision meetings. In RGs, although the tutorial sizes have increased recently, yet they are small compared to what one encounters in the post-92 universities. But then in post-92s in my experience, the absenteeism is high both in lectures and in tutorials, and those students who care to attend do not come with preparation. Hence students-led discussions are not common. The tutorials often are not productive.

    I teach in on-line postgraduate courses offered by a RG university. The students are all mature students with years of work and world experience and divide their time among on-line learning, full-time working and family responsibilities. They are really global audience and bring in their diverse cultural and work experience to the on-line forum. The virtual class room size is not large , but the size here does not matter as the quality of students-led discussions in tutorials (conducted in an asynchronous way) are excellent.

  2. Cormac Says:

    I agree – small is beautiful, but one-to-one has many disadvantages. I notice here in Harvard that classes tend to be 6-8 in many subjects

    • copernicus Says:

      One-to-one works well if the tutor is of generous disposition,can be a problem otherwise.

      The last time I had been to Harvard was on a visit in 1974 to see a few friends in the EE Department. It was an uncomfortable time because Nixon hit by Watergate scandal was trying for a graceful exit from Vietnam. Harvard’s faculty member Kissinger, then the secretary of state was heavily featured in campus discussions. I simply wanted to get back to Ohio to my university which was calmer and do my mundane instructor work.

      I am interested to know the reason for the very small class size of 6 to 8. Is it the norm now? In 1974, the class size in EE lectures were in double figures. But then EEs preferred to be at MIT.

  3. Mark Dowling Says:

    “But I might just suggest to its donors, if any of them are listening, that there may be better value for money in some other institutions.”

    What on earth makes you think any donor pool, but especially Oxford’s, is fungible? The cynical among your readership might think you were making a plea on behalf of your new outfit… Given your new appointment you are inviting quite cynical inferrals from your readership (suspicious gits like me at any rate).

    In any case, Oxford’s alumni pool is more likely to think that every redbrick’s doors should be shut to provide state funding for tutorials at Oxford.

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