We know that the global university rankings compiled by the magazine Times Higher Education use student-staff ratios as one the key criteria for the league tables. Interestingly, the only Irish institution that makes it into the top 100 on that basis is Dublin Institute of Technology. And we also know, in the context of the continuing budget cuts in Ireland and the anticipated further reductions in public expenditure later this year that the position of Irish universities in this regard will erode further; indeed, quite apart from the budget cuts there is now the public sector recruitment embargo that has, with some modifications, also been applied to higher education.
In fact, even in much better times the student-staff ratio in Ireland has been bad by international standards. And it is probably fair to say that neither our politicians nor, if we’re honest, the general public really believe that in terms of academic faculty we are under-staffed. There are however not just global rankings affected by this, there are also major pedagogical considerations. In principle the Irish system of higher education has subscribed to the British model of teaching that uses the lecture as a tool for communicating and disseminating information and an evaluation of that information, and small group teaching (in sessions variously described as tutorials, classes, seminars, demonstrations, supervisions etc) to undertake discussion, critique and analysis. Small group teaching is also used to allow students to develop their presentation and communication skills.
These latter sessions only have intrinsic merit if they are genuinely conducted in small groups. If you take the Oxbridge model, ‘small groups’ ideally consist of one student, but perhaps two or three are also acceptable. That was never a viable option in Ireland. When I first began lecturing my tutorial groups typically consisted of eight or so students, but I am told by academics from around the system that it is far from unusual to be teaching to upwards of 15 – at which point it clearly is no longer a small group session.
Maybe such education is no longer affordable. But if it isn’t, we need to undertake a proper pedagogical analysis of what could be an acceptable alternative; and we may also need to persuade the international educational community that the student-staff ratio is not an appropriate criterion for compiling international league tables.
But what we should not do is to imply some ongoing commitment to staffing levels that permit small group teaching while at the same time standing by as our ability to undertake that is eroded beyond a point at which we can still actually do it. We have, I think, reached that point, and we had better get serious about developing a model of higher education that can hold out a realistic promise of a quality student experience within our existing and likely future constraints.