Contact Hours Should Be About Quality As Well As Quantity

How much importance should contact hours be given? What do these hours mean to each student? Hours vary between subjects and also between institutions. Do we search for a sweet spot, try for as many hours as possible, or look beyond contact time completely?

Nicola Dandrige, CEO of Universities UK, says that contact hours have changed over time and, as a result, represent too narrow a focus in isolation:

“What we are hearing is the importance of teaching and learning and universities are responding to that in more imaginative ways than just contact hours.” [Source]

From this viewpoint, hours will vary considerably as institutions adopt different approaches to their teaching methods.

But students have become accustomed to viewing contact hours as a good way of working out value for money. A QAA report on student expectations found that contact time was considered the most important, if not the only, cost relating to tuition fees.

HEPI found that “those with least contact were least satisfied“, while NUS research found that some students look to contact hours as representing value for money. One student argued:

“If I am only in for three hours a week, why should I pay so much money? You want to tbe at uni and interacting with lecturers.”

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks - CC BY 2.0)

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks – CC BY 2.0)

Comparisons between students is easy. Even when there is good reason for a contrast in contact time between students, an imbalance does not make for a happy reaction. Take one such reply in the 2013 Student Academic Survey by Which? and HEPI:

“I’m a third year history student and only get three hours a week contact time. And yet I pay the same price as someone who has 12 hours per week.”

Nevertheless, the Which? report states that “contact hours have risen by just 20 minutes per week since 2006”. And while student expectations are understandably on the up, needs and expectations are two very different things.

The 2012 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey found:

“…for those with fewer than 10 hours of lectures a week, 21% felt the debt was too high while the figure was just 10% for those who spent over 21 hours in lectures.”

But is it all about spending longer in lectures?

I have previously argued that not all contact hours are equal and that the term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation. It might be easy to break down the number of hours you spend each week into a monetary value, but it counts for nothing if the contact isn’t helpful.

Thankfully, students do appear to seek quality contact far more than lengthier contact. The number of hours may or may not be enough, but the most important factor on the minds of students has little to do with time. Take this year’s HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey:

“…two thirds of contact experienced by students was in class sizes of 16 students or more. There is a striking decline in the proportion of students perceiving educational benefits as the size of class increases.”

The report goes on to say that while a third of students wished for more contact hours, “…the findings here suggest that increasing the quality of contact (which is more probable in smaller classes) is likely to be more effective in improving the student learning experience than simply increasing contact hours”.

QAA reported similar findings:

“…we found [students] wanted more ‘close support’, through contact time in small seminars and tutorials, and definitely not more lecture hours.”

The Student Room asked students how much 1 to 1 time they expected to have with a tutor each week. More than half of the prospective students surveyed expected between one and five hours. The reality is, on average, more like half an hour.

But it seems that the more personal time given to students, the better. Gibbs reported:

“What seems to matter is the nature of the class contact. ‘Close contact’ that involves at least some interaction between teachers and students on a personal basis is associated with greater educational gains (Pascarella, 1980) independently of the total number of class contact hours (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005).”

So the number of hours given to contact are important, but only when also assessing the relative value to learning.

And as one HE friend put it to me this week, some students want to be taught via lectures and increased seminar allocation, while others prefer to be left in a room with wi-fi so they can research and learn for themselves. Needs are not all the same. A big increase in contact time for a student who identifies strongly with independent learning could work against them.

Rather than compare hours between institutions and courses, how about comparing the number of hours for the same course at the same institution over different years?

If there is a marked change in contact hours over those years, what other changes have been made as a consequence? Is there more 1 to 1 time given, for instance? If so, the reduced time may still provide equal or greater value. However, if little change has been made, the consequences of shorter contact time may be negative.

An hour of personal engagement with a tutor can be worth many hours of listening to the same lecture as the other hundred people in a room. Don’t just look at how many hours you get each week, but look at what’s happening within those hours. You’ll get much better peace of mind in the process.

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby - CC BY 2.0)

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby – CC BY 2.0)

Is University Worth £9,000 a Year?

The Telegraph recently asked students if their first year was worth £9,000.

This type of question is hard to answer at such an early stage. Wait until the end of the degree and answers won’t be much clearer then.

Value doesn’t conclude at the end of an academic year. Nor does it conclude when you finish studying.

In the nature of ‘students as consumers’, imagine buying a brand new car. After you’ve traveled on your first petrol tank worth of fuel, could you say if the car was worth the price? What about after one year of driving it?

The questions seem confused. How do you know if the car is worth it? Value doesn’t conclude until the car is run into the ground, you sell it, or it’s written off. Only when you put all the factors together can you get a reasonable assessment of value.

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

For a degree, value is even harder to assess. No wonder there’s so much discussion around it!

The Telegraph states, “58.4 per cent felt their first year wasn’t worth the £9000”. The problem is in understanding why. The answer is based on a general feeling. Some students will be offended paying a penny for their pursuit of education, while others will sense value in the long haul, whatever the cost.

Neither are necessarily right or wrong. Limited knowledge of what’s to come in their future (and in the wider world) prevents anyone from giving an accurate account of value. Motivation drives how you feel about many things, including value. But motivation is a complicated issue. There is no easy answer.

One opinion for poor value for money in the first year is that it doesn’t count academically.

This ‘first year doesn’t count’ argument is a false trail. Fresher year counts beyond grades. If nothing else, it acts to strengthen your academic work, which should help grades in later years. A direct correlation between fees and grades is jarring. Understandable, yes, but still jarring.

Contact time is another false trail. A joint study by HEPI and Which?, reports on student experiences, including contact time and the differences between institutions, even for the same subject. But there are many reasons why contact time isn’t just about hours. And neither should that be the only factor when looking at value.

It’s easy to boil the university experience down to this: a path toward a degree.

But the reality is complicated, just like motivation. You (hopefully) end up with a degree at the end of your time, but is that the only value worth attaching to the fee? If so, what price are you willing to pay for a degree and why?

There are arguments against buying into a university experience altogether. Despite those reasons, some will still find great value in HE. My motivation is not yours. Your motivation is not anyone else’s.

Is £9k worth it each year? Can you give a reasonable answer?

A simple question of value is far from simple to answer amid all the confusion. It makes little sense to view university within the confines of market competition.

Universities Going Private: Should We Ask ‘If’ or ‘When’?

Will any of the ‘big player’ universities attempt to go private any time soon?

With the news that Pearson is introducing for-profit private HE, “the first time a FTSE 100 company has directly delivered a degree course”, I wondered what other changes might be on the horizon for current universities.

In 2010, the Telegraph reported that an unnamed source from the University of Cambridge had suggested the university may have to go private in order to compete better and raise enough funds.

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Labour MP Barry Sheerman was also quoted, saying “I was told by Cambridge they may privatise themselves because they are so aggrieved by the cuts and by Lord Browne’s proposals”.

While the Telegraph piece went on to say that a Cambridge spokesman dismissed the idea of going private, they were also vague enough to explain that “The university has reached no official position on these matters”.

Add the fact that Cambridge also had “a funding gap of some £9,000 for each of its 12,000 undergraduates in 2010/11”, the new level of tuition fees isn’t going to bridge that gap. While fees may be higher for students, those fees are effectively a change to where the funding was already coming from. Some institutions may improve their income slightly depending on the fees they set, but in most cases there won’t be much extra cash flowing in.

Cambridge is one of the few UK universities that is graced with consistently large alumni donations. But that doesn’t mean the university can rely on that to make up for any shortfalls. Cambridge has other income streams too, but I’m sure it doesn’t wish to use these as a backstop either. That wouldn’t make sense. And no matter how strong the future appears, that won’t stop further considerations over the way the university is funded.

Oxford and Cambridge have just come under fire over special funding for their tutorial and interview process. Criticism like this hasn’t stopped the funding yet, but it puts further pressure on policy makers to remove the funding, and further pressure on Oxbridge to find alternatives.

Pearson’s move into degrees is of the for-profit type. Perhaps Cambridge, or another established university, would consider going private under a ‘not-for-profit’ banner.

When Universities UK reported on private provision of HE, it said “The for-profit/not-for-profit distinction is important, but even within the not-for-profit sector there is a wide range of provider”.

UUK go on to explain that many not-for-profit outfits tend to operate very commercially and are businesslike in their dealings, looking to make ‘profits’ of a kind. However:

“…their key motive is to promote public good. This is a key distinction between them and the private for-profit providers which, although they may be working in the same arena and providing a public good, do so in the expectation that they can earn surpluses which flow into the private hands of shareholders. An essential distinction therefore relates to the distribution and uses to which surpluses are put.” (2.8, p.14)

Current universities may not consider making a complete push to become for-profit entities, but what about not-for-profit possibilities? I wouldn’t rule it out.

The government’s HE White Paper goes as far as saying that not-for-profit providers would be able to apply for HEFCE grants in the same way as HE and FE institutions. (6.29, p.73) Is there enough scope for universities to change their outlook and manage a win-win?

My guess is that should any institution find a suitable way to go down this path, they would opt for not-for-profit billing.

However, a HEPI report on private providers questions whether the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit really matters. It first suggests that the distinction isn’t automatically necessary, because “the public interest lies in education of high quality being provided and consumer interests being protected – whatever the status of provider”.

HEPI does goes on to say that careful scrutiny would be required to ensure this quality and that impact can be assessed. It concludes:

“Care will also be needed in shaping a new and comprehensive regulatory framework.  If an equitable and broadly comparable regulatory framework is developed for all institutions in the sector, it may need some mechanisms for monitoring surpluses and alerting a regulator where the amount given to shareholders might be considered excessive.”

Distinctions probably do matter and are likely to do so for now, which is why not-for-profit seems most likely.

How viable is it for universities to smoothly transition into private entities? I’m sure other commentators may have a better view on these matters than I do. Whatever the case is, you can be sure that a lot of consideration has been going on for quite some time now.

While the Telegraph’s suggestion of Cambridge going private was ultimately dismissed by the university, it was clear that the situation was under continued assessment. In addition, Wendy Piatt of the Russell Group (which includes Cambridge in its membership) said that going private may be a necessity in the future. Reported in the same Telegraph piece, Piatt explained, “That would require a lot of consideration and we would hope not to have to go there, but we would certainly have to consider more radical options”.

As things stand now, those radical options may be looking sensible to some institutions. Not just Cambridge. Therefore, of universities going private, which is the most important question to ask: ‘if’ or ‘when’?