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

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

More Accurate Student : Staff Ratios

Monday, July 26, 2010

I've just received an interesting (currently unpublished) UCU report on Student : Staff ratios (SSRs). In the absence of detailed information about contact hours being built into league tables, the measure of the allocation of staff to students at universities (which is taken into account by most of the major university guides), is a vital indicator of teaching quality for prospective students.

However, currently SSRs are calculated using data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. It is a raw measure of the number of staff employed to the number of students attending a given institution. What the UCU report did was to take a different data set (the Transparent Approach to Costing, which indicates the staff time spent on different activities). This shows that on average in the UK, academics spent 41% of their time on teaching, 24% on research, 3% on other activities, and 32% on administration.

However, far from being average, Higher Education contains a broad spectrum of institutions, from those which focus intensively on research, to those whose main emphasis is on teaching. Correspondingly, the report indicates wide variations in SSRs across different types of institutions when the TRAC data is used instead of the raw HESA measure of the number of staff employed. It also shows a substantial discrepancy between SSRs according to HESA statistics  (which are the numbers published in university guides) and SSRs according to TRAC, which takes into account how much time staff at each type of institution can dedicate to teaching.

For example, on average the top Russell Group universities had one staff member to around 11 students when using HESA statistics; however, after adjusting for the proportion of time allocated to teaching as opposed to research (the latter being intensive at this band of universities), the SSR rose to around 33 students to the teaching proportion of staff time. In predominantly teaching institutions, SSRs according to HESA data were around 19 students to each member of staff; using the refined TRAC data, SSRs rose by around a third to 33.

This is quite interesting, and puts some statistical flesh on a common hunch. Wealthy, research-intensive universities typically have a larger number of staff than smaller, teaching-intensive ones. This seems to be reflected in the HESA statistics, which support the general impression that the Russell group universities and their ilk are better all round, not only for research but for teaching too. Remember that the Russell group SSR on HESA data was 11 students per staff member, whilst at the smaller teaching institutions it was almost double this. However, naturally at Russell group universities a greater percentage of staff time will be allocated to research. This means that when the TRAC data is used, there is more parity between teaching and research-intensive institutions, both being around 33:1.

Especially at higher ranking institutions, students often complain that whilst their prospectuses showed leading researchers at their institutions, their actual contact time with the stellar names was more limited. This UCU report goes to show that students certainly need to be provided with more refined information about the actual  amount of contact they can expect to have with academic staff, rather than the raw number of staff employed at an institution. If you only ever see Professor X in his photo on the front of the prospectus, because his actual self is always off running research groups around the country, you have the right to be disappointed. This new information, then, also endorses one of my key findings in my Contact Hours Calculator, which is that the lack of transparency and accessibility of Higher Education statistics is woeful.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:43 am


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