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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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University Contact Hours

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A.C. Grayling has just written a comment piece in The Guardian complaining that more "contact hours" do not equate to a better education. This is the belief apparently held by Peter Mandelson, who in calling for universities to become more commercially responsive to their consumers (i.e. students), has focused on contact time as a prime way in which universities should compete to attract students.

Grayling remarks that Mandelson has misunderstood the nature of a university, especially in Arts and Humanities subjects:
University is emphatically not about spoon-feeding and hand-holding through courses, but the very opposite. It is not about maximising contact hours, but about autonomy in thinking, researching and writing.
This is fundamentally true. The job of a university teacher is not just to deliver the maximum amount of information in the most efficient way (one can imagine this idea might appeal to Mandelson, though) but to encourage students to learn independently. This is why the single most popular career destination for English Literature graduates is business and consultancy. It does not matter to an accountancy or financial firm that a student can recite twelve Keats poems, or tell you the plot of Pride and Prejudice. What matters is that in discussing texts in tutorials, in reading critical material, and in writing essays about literary works, the English student becomes able to summarise information, write accurately, and present confidently. They have also proved that they can study independently in a library, without needing a teacher to look over them and crack a whip.

Giving an arts and humanities student the equivalent number of contact hours as a science student - where the delivery of raw information, which can be applied to a relevant vocation such as engineering, does matter - would entirely negate a key benefit of having a pool of graduates emerging from non-skills based courses. Again, one suspects Mandelson will rather miss this point.

The hard core of Grayling's argument, then, is difficult to dispute, for all that he whimsically recites soft Aristotelian ideals: "We educate ourselves so that we can make a noble use of our leisure." However, as I have commented recently on this blog, the leaders of universities - who did not have to pay tuition fees themselves - grossly underestimate the financial hardship of current students, and consistently take the attitude that students are a problem to be minimised, rather than fee-paying consumers. When staff are torn between giving more contact time to students, or researching more, the former invariably gives way.

Whilst universities, especially in the Arts and Humanities, should be concerned with allowing students to learn independently, and contact hours are not the be all and end all of a good education, this does not mean that universities currently give value for money. Indeed, the lifetime earnings of arts and humanities graduates may not beat those of people who leave school aged 16, and so if students are to take a hefty loan burden long into their lifetimes, universities need to ensure that they offer value for money in the broadest possible sense of "value," which may mean providing more teaching for the crucial three years.

Students on a typical Arts and Humanities course may have only around 10 contact hours a week. With current tuition fee levels, that works out at around £40 per student per hour, and considerably more (into three figures) for a body of students in a seminar or lecture. Surely students have the right to feel aggrieved when lecturers remain uncontactable, or unable to offer any more than the minimum, or when other resources do not come up to scratch?

How does it help a student to learn independently when it can take two months for them to get an essay back from a tutor? How does it help students to learn independently when the only comment at the bottom of an essay is "well done"? How does it help students to learn independently when course books are not accessible or even stocked in a university's over-stretched library? How does it help a student to learn independently when a tutor does not have time to offer pastoral support if a student is encountering domestic, personal or financial difficulties beyond their control?

All of these examples are things I have encountered first hand as a student and university tutor. All of these examples speak not of staff who do not care, or of students who expect too much, but of universities and staff stretched on the rack of teaching and research, with the latter currently dominating.

I also teach for the Open University, and the quality of contact and support students have from tutors is astonishing in comparison to traditional universities. Yet the OU is also one of the best institutions educating through independent learning. Universities ought not to aim to maximise contact hours in any quantitative sense; but they have a long way to go before they offer value for money through quality of contact, in the way the OU has done since its inception as a student-centred organisation.

Maximising contact hours would not automatically give students a better education; indeed, for Arts and Humanities graduates who prove their ability to work without supervision, it might even be counter-productive. However, that badge of "contact hours" offers a very useful focal point around which to have the necessary debate about whether fee paying students are really getting the quality of experience they deserve. It should also focus the minds of deans and vice chancellors into realising that you cannot squeeze more out of overworked staff if they must do both teaching and research. If teaching needs to be improved, then more staff need to be employed. This is the simple equation that will, almost certainly, become the outcome of higher tuition fees.

It may not be good for the idea of the university, where those doing the cutting edge research are, currently, also those who provide inspirational teaching; it will almost certainly lead us to follow the American model where graduate teaching assistants do as their name suggests, whilst a few faculty Professors do research full time. However, these consequences are only to be expected when students have become consumers. For student-consumers as they exist now, the quality (and perhaps quantity) of teaching matters, and it is a good thing that Mandelson has raised that "contact hours" spectra, to give students a hook on which to hang their demands, and to give them hard figures to force their universities to respond to their current imbalance in favour of research.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:17 am

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