University studies: how often should you see a lecturer?

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.

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5 Comments on “University studies: how often should you see a lecturer?”

  1. V.H Says:

    Hasn’t this issue a genesis earlier in the students life. In the past the grammar school system provided a set of standards that the university knew as they had been along the same road. But more importantly they knew the view at each point along that road.
    I am struck by the similarities with the medical community. There they are all sourced from a narrow section of the community. They have similar, if not the same eating habits, holidaying habits, housing as well as education. Then when they become GP’s they have a picture of normal so abnormal as to be a total outlier on any plot. Now granted they aren’t idiots, they can process the differences. But that isn’t the issue, their history makes them foreign and no amount of processing will overcome. In fact most GP’s have more contact with the Ceylonese community or the Swiss villagers they encounter on their holidays than they have with their patients.
    Isn’t the split in the UK system accepting that there is a difference in the inputs, and no small difference either. At York a lecturer can toss half a dozen references into a talk that will be missed by some even though these people have the A-Level results, and possibly exceptional results. Could it be argued the split is more cultural. And being cultural addressed in that way.

  2. cormac Says:

    I think there is a big divide here between the sciences and the humanities. Between lectures and practicals, we had a 35-hour week as undergraduate students, with study in the evenings.
    Ths hasn’t changed much in the sciences (and in the IoTs, it’s even more intense with constant continuous harass sorry assessment).
    There is an awareness that studnets are not getting time to reflect on the material, but little has changed in my time as a lecturer…

  3. Eddie Says:

    @cormac Agree, you are spot on. If one cared to find out a bit more about Science departments in York, one would hear a different story of academics delivering good contact hours and students working hard quietly without a murmur. Indeed, this difference is true in the sciences and humanities divide in all Russell Group and Group94 universities in England; perhaps true elsewhere too. It is, certainly true in my alma mater in the US.

  4. “PERHAPS” ! Of course some students are getting less than they pay for – in other parts of the UK the benefit of Tuition fees is that it shines a light on the product supplied. Indeed in Scotland GIRFEC (ie every child matters) has legally meant that all students do not get what they need – certainly according to the pushy parent brigade. As the FE sector gets its funding cut and HE in certain parts erect new ivory towers of learning the onus is on, and St Andrews knows this to its cost, the HE sector to step up to the plate, especially as the pie on that plate is smaller than ever for the 99%.

  5. […] But the reality is complicated, just like motivation. You (hopefully) end up with a degree at the end of your time, but is that the only value worth attaching to the fee? If so, what price are you willing to pay for a degree and why? […]

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