Posted tagged ‘Cambridge’

Really small tutorial supervision

January 26, 2011

Many years ago when I was a student, I visited a friend in Oxford. As I arrived he had just come from a tutorial, at which he had been alone with the tutor (which was normal in Oxford). I had always envied Oxford students their one-on-one tutorials, but as he explained his experience I changed my mind, and I have never again thought of it as educationally good. He had been asked to prepare an essay in advance. He had read this out to the tutor during the session, as the tutor stood looking out the window. When he had finished (after perhaps 25 minutes), the tutor rummaged around on his shelves and then handed my friend a book, opening it at a particular chapter. He asked my friend to read this, which took a perhaps another ten minutes. Then the tutor asked my friend to suggest ways in which the chapter he had just read was relevant to his essay. Then the tutorial was over.

About three months ago I drew attention in this blog to Oxford’s recent attempts to raise philanthropic donations to resource their one-on-one tutorials, and to the possibility that the university might have to abandon them because of the cost involved. Yesterday the Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge University may also end one-on-one tuition (called ‘supervisions’) in order to save £600,000 each year, as part of a general review of costs.

If I were in Oxford or Cambridge I would also be arguing for the ending of this particular teaching practice, but not for budgetary reasons. I think it is pedagogically wrong. As research has shown, the value of small group teaching lies not just, and maybe not even primarily, in the interaction between student and instructor, but rather in collaborative learning between students. For this to be effective the groups have to be small, but they do need to contain more than one student. The teaching methods used traditionally in Oxbridge have probably helped to create a sense of having been through a special learning process, but I would doubt whether they have really nurtured the students’ analytical and critical skills to the fullest extent. It may be, therefore, that financial pressures will force Oxford and Cambridge to make reforms that will, in the end, improve the quality of the learning available there. And if a byproduct is greater value for money, then so much the better.

For the rest of us, however, it may be worth reflecting again (as I have suggested before in this blog) that small group teaching is a major strength of our higher education system. We should not lightly let it go. In many institutions it has already been lost.


Making philanthropy work for universities

June 13, 2010

As the debate about higher education funding and the return (or not) of tuition fees gathered pace in Ireland, most (but not all) politicians adopted the favoured posture of head in the sand: they didn’t want tuition fees in case this brought out hostile middle class voters, and they couldn’t offer much (or any) more public funding. So they tended to offer make-believe solutions: sometimes the prospect of higher taxes for the wealthy to provide funding (which can never be delivered, as they well know, because no tax revenues can be ringfenced for a particular purpose), sometimes the prospect of philanthropy to make up for missing public funds.

The latter ‘idea’ is particularly silly. No private donor in their right mind will donate funds to a university to compensate for declining taxpayer support, nor indeed will they give money to cover a deficit in recurrent spending. The major aim of a philanthropic donor will be to provide capital support for building projects or for pump priming a new initiative. To transfer responsibility for running costs from the state to private donors is an impossible prospect. The day to day spending of a university needs to be met from public funding, tuition fees or commercial activities; there is no other option.

However, there is a major role for philanthropy which we are only beginning to to address in this part of the world. The key ingredients of successful fundraising include engaging the institution’s alumni, ensuring that they still feel part of the university community and encouraging them in the habit of annual giving, however small in individual cases. In addition, institutions need to network with potential individual donors or trust funds and foundations, and to work with them in developing aims and objectives with which they may want to be associated.

We are, as is well known, far behind the United States in making all this happen. The culture of philanthropy which pervades the American culture – the idea of ‘giving something back’ – hasn’t yet established itself here in the same way. But at least there has been some progress. The University of Cambridge has just announced that it has been successful in raising more than £1 billion in its most recent campaign, and this is an important milestone on this side of the Atlantic. Of course Cambridge has greater opportunities to achieve this than most. but its success should give heart to others to work with alumni and friends to secure greater support.

The government and other stakeholders need to understand that philanthropy is not the answer to funding shortfalls. But the universities on the other hand need to see philanthropy as a key ingredient in the advancement of the institution and the pursuit of its objectives. And all of us who are graduates of a university need to adopt the idea that we still owe them our support, not least because the next generations of students will be the beneficiaries.