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.