For the past few years a big search has been on to find the most useful key performance indicators with which to judge the performance of universities. So the view has been expressed by politicians and in the media that there must be some metrics which most accurately reveal the productivity of the academy. One that is getting much more attention is the concept of ‘contact hours’. This is an indicator that discloses the number of hours per week during which students experience formal teaching or tutorial support.
This is not an entirely pointless exercise. When I was President of Dublin City University we were able to establish a pretty unambiguous link between student attendance at classes and examination performance. But attendance at what, exactly? There are growing doubts in some circles about the usefulness of large lectures, in part because as a medium for transmitting knowledge it has been overtaken by the internet and other freely available sources, and in part because lectures are seen as too passive a learning method. On the other hand, small group tutorials and seminars are seen as being much more effective tools, not least because they are more participative and allow greater monitoring of individual student performance.
But then again, as higher education funding dips, large group classes are much more economical and may allow the idea to be sustained that students are enjoying a sufficient number of ‘contact hours’, even if the pedagogical value of the exercise may be more debatable.
All this is part of the growing uncertainty as to what universities should actually be doing to allow students to have the best possible educational experience. As all the accumulated assumptions and traditions of higher education crumble, and as the academy faces serious scepticism from its stakeholders, it has become more and more difficult to develop a confident and well judged pedagogical framework. Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside for now until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic cliché, it’s just a box-ticking exercise.