Finding the right ratio

One of the key performance indicators that influence university rankings and attract comment is the student-staff ratio. In almost every assessment of higher education there is an assumption that a smaller number of students supported by a larger number of academic faculty  is better for quality, student support and educational outcomes. That position has been underlined again by the new President of University College Dublin (UCD), Professor Andrew Deeks, who has said in one of his first public statements since taking up the post that Irish universities’ student-staff ratios are ‘considerably out of line’ when compared with international benchmarks. He was expressing concern that higher education funding in Ireland may not be sufficient to secure the resources needed to maintain quality. A similar comment had previously been made by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Paddy Prendergast.

The student-staff ratio in Ireland is 19:1. This is higher than that found in some competitor countries, but is that important? Do we actually know what the appropriate or optimum ratio is? Should we assume that the lowest is the best, and that it should be 1:1?

I have great sympathy with those who argue for more faculty to provide a quality experience for students, but I don’t myself know whether we have any really robust evidence of what the right figure is. Nor have we really asked whether changes in pedagogy, or in teaching and learning technology, or in demographics, should have any impact on this figure. So for example, a very low ratio would create such extraordinary costs that it would become possible to provide university places for a small minority of the population only. A very high ratio on the other hand would make it very difficult to provide any effective student support, no matter how good the learning technology.

In addition, there are all sorts of questions both about how reliable the figures really are when they are published, or what should be read into them.

It is therefore time to look at all this in a more scholarly manner, and to investigate much more closely what is needed for a good education system. ‘Lower is better’ is not of itself a sufficient principle.

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12 Comments on “Finding the right ratio”

  1. no-name Says:

    “It is therefore time to look at all this in a more scholarly manner, and to investigate much more closely what is needed for a good education system.”

    Yes, it is easy to agree that greater levels and quality of scholarship in these matters would be beneficial. It does not seem that the students of Robert Gordon University are being offered as experimental participants, though. In any case, the complexity of controlling confounding factors makes it extremely difficult to isolate the impact of class size.

    This complexity makes it reasonable to reason analytically and by analogy, to supplement empirical investigation. One might be able to make a reasonable case that in any country, the upper bound on the student:staff ratio should be determined by the ratio of the overall size of the government cabinet (less the head of government) to one (for Ireland, that would suggest a student:staff ratio of 14:1, would it not?). Are the reasons that make a larger or smaller government cabinet more problematic, or less so, not very similar to the issues that impinge on the effects of varying class sizes?

  2. Mike Boxall Says:

    This is indeed a contentious question that requires more than a ksimplistic KPI response. What matters, surely, is which staff are engaging with students, in what settings and to what ends. If senior academic staff are in practice spending their time on research, conferences, etc and students meet only post-docs and ‘teaching only’ juniors, that may be a worse learning experience that a higher ratio of contacts with committed tutors. Another usrful ratio we have used to good effect is the amount of contact time divided by the group size/hour – so 10 hours of big lectures is differentiated from (say) 2-3 hours in small tutor groups.

  3. V.H Says:

    Is this position of UCD and TCD being both patronising and condescending to students and their university teachers. Isn’t the question whether a graduate has equal or better than the average in the market they operate, meaning the English speaking world. Is a TCD or UCD degree the equal of Berkeley, Melbourne or Sorbonne. If it isn’t, then there is a problem. That a bunch of large global corporations are having a hissy-fit because they cannot find the fodder to keep them to the fore of the wave on the cheap isn’t the problem of the universities or the funder for that matter. That’s a stick you accepted willingly out of a degree of greed so elevated that you didn’t realise you’d grasped the messy end.
    And who gives a hoot about rankings. If the money spent drawing in the few foreign students was devoted to the native students the rank might be naturally higher.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    Do you think that more class time is better for students? Or could we cut the semesters to six weeks? How about two? One? Why not zero? Or is this a question in need of further research?


    • That’s all so very clever and all, Ernie, but what is your view of the appropriate student-staff ratio, or whether it matters?

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Since you apparently need it spelled out for you: just as more time is better for students (obviously), fewer students per class is also better for students (obviously). In fact, they are really facets of the same thing, what is sometimes called “face time.” If you accept the obviousness of the one, you ought (logically) to accept the obviousness of the other.

        So the answer to your question is: the lowest ratio that the country is willing to pay for.


        • The country may be ‘willing to pay for’ a very low ratio, but may in consequence only be able to accommodate a much smaller number of students. How does one reconcile this?

        • Greg Foley Says:

          Wrong Ernie. The optimum staff-student – for there is an optimum – is very much dependent on the type of module that is being taught. In laboratory modules, you need to balance lots of things, including the fact that some experiments need a minimum number of students for them to be even possible! You may also want to encourage teamwork, leadership and all sorts of other activities that go beyond simple ‘learning’. Laboratories are also an excellent way for staff to teach in small groups. All these things must be taken into consideration.
          In lecture modules, the staff-student ratio is not so critical but if you want to engage in more active forms of teaching – as you need to do in mathematical subjects – you don’t really want to go above about 1:25.

          • no-name Says:

            “… if you want to engage in more active forms of teaching – as you need to do in mathematical subjects – you don’t really want to go above about 1:25.”

            Do you really mean to imply that 1:20 is worse than 1:25 in the situation that you describe?

          • Greg Foley Says:

            No. If you go above about 25 or thereabouts, it becomes hard to manage a class and give each student the required attention. (Not an exact umber of course – depends on the class dynamic.) But there’s very little difference between say 15 and 20 – in my experience.

  5. V.H Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this since.
    We have a situation in education that tracks people in to Arts since the sheer numbers of maths and science teachers necessary to re-balance things simply aren’t there.
    I may have mentioned I’m doing the Khan Academy ‘World of Math’ programme(53% in, and with 1,357729 energy points). Well, first I was certain I must have had a series of strokes given the absence of any trace of chunks of mathematics that are 5th, 6th and 7th grade core in the USA. But the odd thing was I could shine with higher levels. And then it dawned, the higher stuff was what I learned myself as an adult.
    Where am I off to with this. Well by the time the student get to you the supposition is that they have a certain foundation. A certain solid foundation. And there’s a darn good chance they haven’t. Be this in maths, Arts or science. You simply can be certain massive gaps exist, someplace in their education.
    So when you speak of ratios.
    A ratio that you could get away with in Cambridge isn’t one you could get away with in Cardiff. Of course that Cambridge actually lowers the ratio doesn’t change the fact that the foundation the undergrad has doesn’t require full blood professors to handhold them. Their ratio could be higher. Other places, not so much. Since in effect you are correcting for the faults or gaps in their foundation.
    The big question is do you see yourself as an Industry. One where you are in competition with each other. And if you are, what is your main product, what is your secondary product and how are you developing them. One thing seems clear, you cannot do all things equally.


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