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.