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More contact hours and smaller teaching groups
Surveys show undergraduates have two main priorities to improve their experience at university: more contact hours and smaller sized teaching groups. Simple enough. Given the considerable weight the National Student Survey has on spurring universities into action, we may reasonably wonder why student voices are not being heard on these seemingly simple requests.
Gross income, poor outcomes
With nearly £10K raised per year from each undergraduate student and with around 77 per cent of teaching income coming from student fees, we should not be surprised that universities aspire to increase student numbers. Course caps are often applied only due to lack of lecture theatre capacity: for once, outdated infrastructure works to student advantage. Online degrees have no such limit.
Sadly, increased student numbers are not usually matched with an increase in teaching staff. Students end up on ever-bloated degree programmes. While opportunities for more intimate discussion like seminars are often led by postgraduate students rather than core staff. Students feel neglected, undervalued, and remote from the experts they wish to learn from.
Red card for the REF
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is designed to evaluate and rank research activity by UK higher education institutions. Its aim is to increase accountability, but it diverts academic staff from teaching. Among other criticisms, the REF does not cover teaching activity so university staff must often prioritise research to gain recognition for their work.
The currently voluntary Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) from the Office for Students attempts to redress this balance with six measures:
- Teaching on my course (from the National Student Survey)
- Assessment and feedback (from the National Student Survey)
- Academic support (from the National Student Survey)
- Non-continuation (from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and Individualised Learner Record data)
- Employment or further study (from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey)
- Highly skilled-employment or further study (from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey)
Yet if it is rolled out in a similar manner to the REF, both will take time away from teaching and research. All in the pursuit of showing rather than undertaking contributions.
What can be done?
Universities can hire more teaching staff in line with student numbers, for the sake of both students and staff. Economies of scale do not apply beyond a certain point. Even if the REF stays, teaching should be recognised and rewarded internally by universities as an important part of their purpose. Less governmental and institutional emphasis on the REF would free up lecturers to engage meaningfully with students who are keen to learn directly from the experts in their field of interest.