Posted tagged ‘staff-student ratio’

Staffing – the critical question

November 16, 2009

In the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, employees are to be balloted on strike action after the university announced that it was reducing staff numbers by 10 per cent as part of a cost saving plan. The University and College Union (UCU) has argued that the cut, if implemented, would move Leeds to the bottom of the university league table on its staff-student ration, which is a key criterion determining the overall rankings. The university has disputed this, pointing out that other universities are also reducing staffing.

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the Leeds University plan, this story raises again a question that will ultimately affect all higher education institutions. Cuts in public expenditure are producing serious university budgets cuts in a number of countries, and as the main cost in higher education is is pay, it is clear that as cuts are introduced universities will have little choice but to reduce staffing levels. In Ireland we have the added feature that the so-called ’employment control framework’ is requiring institutions to cut staff numbers.

Assuming that this will remain a continuing process and that therefore the student to staff ration will continue to get worse, we need to have a clear strategy as to how we will cope with that. One response, at least in theory, would be to commit to raising additional external funds so as to be able to maintain current levels (or better). However, the financial climate globally makes it unlikely that such funds could be secured. Another option would be to accept the trend and to look instead at whether a model of teaching could be developed which is less staff-intensive but still capable of delivering excellent results.

Over the coming year a number of universities will face acute financial stress, and will certainly be tempted to look again at the salary bill. And perhaps there is a model of higher education out there that emphasises staffing levels less than we have been inclined to. But what is not desirable is that we accept the staffing reductions and absorb them, and then do everything we did before but with fewer staff; instead we could look at alternative teaching methods and examples elsewhere of good practice with successful results in terms of student achievement.

But we need to be clear that we are now fast approaching a situation in which the old assumptions about higher education are becoming unsustainable. Rather than tackling the traditional model by stealth we should have a plan for the future development of the sector in the context of necessary exchequer adjustments.

Educational quality: the student to faculty ratio

April 20, 2009

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.