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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

Tuition Fees and Contact Hours Calculator

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Guardian's Comment is Free section has recently seen a spirited debate between science and arts students about whether the respective contact hours they receive at university are a fair reflection of the tuition fees they pay. The contact hour is an imperfect but useful focus for a discussion about value for money in higher education. As a prelude to Lord Browne's university funding review, which is likely to see both tuition fees increase and accompanying requirements for universities to be more transparent about the quality of teaching they deliver, the raw contact hour provides the best handle by which current students can grasp the relation between fees, and the education for which they pay.

As an English graduate under the £1000 per year tuition fee model, and now as someone who tutors part time in English, I have long weighed into the debate, blogging grumpily about my belief that the current levels of teaching are inadequate and that the universities have ample capacity to deliver more teaching with their tuition fee money. However, to my shame as an academic research, I realised that my prejudices were not informed by detailed evidence. I therefore developed a "contact hours" calculator, which would help to work out precisely how much a contact hour costs a student in different subjects.

This contact hours calculator is now publically available on The Pequod. It is an Excel spreadsheet with a user-friendly front-end (please enable macros to run it): Download the Tuition Fee and Contact Hours Calculator.

Accompanying the calculator, I wrote a long essay explaining the limitations with the notion of the "contact hour," whilst also running with it to test the relationship between tuition fees and contact hours. The headline results were surprising. Firstly, many contributors to the debate (including myself) have failed to account for the proportion of the "tuition" fee that universities spend on what the Higher Education Statistics Agency labels "Academic Support" (the likes of careers services, counselling and administration) and "Facilities" (accommodation blocks, sports halls, libraries) rather than teaching contact. This infrastructure spend - currently only listed in the Complete University Guide league table - often accounts for half of the tuition fee total.

Once the proportion of the tuition fee that gets spent on infrastructure is deducted, a student in chemistry at a top UK university might be paying as little as £3.00 per student, per contact hour, seemingly outstanding value for money. A student in English at another top university might give double this, £6.00 per student, per contact hour. A lecture delivered to 150 science students contributes £500 to the university. A small group seminar delivered to 20 English students contributes £130.

It is important to note that this is the figure for one hour of face-to-face contact, per student. It does not include the time a lecturer or tutor must spend in preparing teaching materials or marking work. Conversely, a lecture delivered to 200 students will accumulate a greater proportion of the tuition fees than a small group tutorial. Nevertheless, looked at from any perspective, objectively both the English student and chemistry student seem to be getting a good return on their tuition fees, even if from a comparative point of view the chemistry student has more contact time.

The unanswered question is about the quality of different types of teaching environment. Does an interactive, small group tutorial develop an English student's academic, interpersonal and study skills twice as much as a science student's large group lecture?

The calculator also raises issues to do with the accessibility of data. The "tuition" fee is a misnomer, as a significant proportion goes on infrastructure rather than direct teaching. The English student might naturally expect some of their money to be diverted to a well-stocked university library, which also provides adequate facilities for private study. But the HESA "Facilities" and "Academic Services" components lump together spending on academic facilities with extra-curricular ones, such as sports, whilst it does not discriminate between the amount an arts student contributes to the resources that might most benefit them (such as a well-stocked library and private study facilities) and the amount a science student contributes to their relevant resources (such as laboratory equipment).

This blog post represents the public launch of the tuition fee calculator. You are invited to read the essay in full, which explores its implications in more detail, whilst prospective students and interested commentators should find the tuition fee calculator useful as a way of better understanding how tuition fees are currently spent.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:51 pm


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