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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)

Students at the heart of the system? White papers and taking control

The government has issued a long-awaited White Paper on the future of higher education.

Its title, “Students at the heart of the system”, prompted this comment on The Student Room:

“You can’t produce a report titled Students at the Heart of the System but then produce it in a format that only 1% of students will actually read?!”

Very true. In many ways, this White Paper is telling academics and policy makers that they need to make the student the heart of the system.

photo by M.Angel Herrero

photo by M.Angel Herrero

Perhaps all you need to know as a student is that *you* are now in control. If you’re not happy, the system had better sort things out. Pronto!

Otherwise what? Well, otherwise satisfaction goes down and restrictions get put in place that make life difficult for a university.

As with anything, it’s not that simple, but the strength of the ‘student as consumer’ idea is growing by the day.

Want some quotes that prove that point? Here you go:

“…doing more than ever to put students in the driving seat.”

“…we want the sector to become more accountable to students, as well as to the taxpayer.”

“…the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) [is] taking on a major new role as a consumer champion.”

“…institutions must deliver a better student experience; improving teaching, assessment, feedback and preparation for the world of work.”

See what I mean? If nothing else, the White Paper is telling those working in HE to listen to the students, because the student population have the power to change the way things work.

By being at the heart of the system, so long as you continue beating away, the sector keeps working. The sector is meant to change in order to help the heart keep going.

I’m being a bit twee and simplistic at this stage, so let me change tack and go over a few student-specific points that I noted when reading the Executive Summary.

This won’t be exhaustive, but this is still a long post. Take a deep breath, everyone…

First up, the White Paper says:

“To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to prospective students and be respected by employers. Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.”

I’ve talked a lot about marketisation of HE and the student experience before. The reality of giving students more power is not clear cut, even if it sounds pretty awesome and sensible.

Student choice is meaningful only if students understand what their choices are, why they have those choices, how to move forward in terms of those choices, and so on.

That doesn’t involve financial power. But, let’s say for a moment if did. Would that change anything? Not really. Financial power cannot itself be helpful in terms of education and what the student would genuinely benefit from. As things stand, there is a missing link.

“…a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive.”

This is another difficult one. A ‘good student experience’ is unique to each student. And satisfaction can play into the hands of being given a relatively easy route through to a degree. Why put pressure on yourself when you can glide through somewhere else without breaking into a sweat?

This attitude is a real danger for all parties involved. Nobody is at fault because it is just a result of the particular situation. Nevertheless, the situation is worth noting, because the issue has legs. The impact will likely increase before anything tempers the beast.

The White Paper also talks of providing more information to prospective students. Sounds great. But a lot of information already exists. A more important element to this is in helping students understand *how* to use the information.

Due to the unique experiences we have as individuals, there is no single useful way to use that information. Policy makers talk of ‘information, advice and guidance’, because information alone isn’t enough. Advice and guidance are necessary too, because instruction doesn’t help. Each person must take responsibility for their own choices.

Yet choice isn’t easy for young adults.

The White Paper states the aim to “deliver a more responsive higher education sector in which funding follows the decisions of learners and successful institutions are freed to thrive”.

The idea that “funding follows the decisions of learners” takes us into utterly unknown territory. Yet it will be used to fuel the future of the HE sector and the future of many young people.

My decisions as a child and as a young adult were not as clear and thought out as they are now. I’m not an exception. Far from it.

I’m the norm.

I have great respect for the very few who have plans, passions, and other big-picture ideas that enable them to move in a direction that genuinely suits them, despite a young age.

It doesn’t matter what your upbringing and how much familial advantage you’ve had; decisions don’t often come naturally and easily. Surely, therefore, that is a key area to concentrate and help thrive.

The paper continues:

“The overall goal is higher education that is more responsive to student choice, that provides a better student experience and that helps improve social mobility.”

Based on what I’ve just said above, this may turn out to be a contradiction. Responding to student choice could hinder social mobility. And while it may improve the student experience, will it achieve the same for the graduate experience? A big question.

The government do start to cover the graduate angle. As part of the increased information package, students will be told about employment for past graduates, starting salaries, and so on. I won’t go further down this line, though, because it begins a whole new set of discussions about the purpose of university, the differences between now and several years in the past, and so on.

For now, I’ll stick with what’s set to be on offer to new students. Back to the White Paper:

“Student charters and student feedback will take on a new importance to empower students whilst at university.”

Students like feedback. Some wish they had more feedback from tutors. So the concept won’t be new to you.

But care must be taken. There is an unfortunate link made between hard work and lack of enjoyment. The link can be false, covering up the real issues, but that doesn’t stop the link from being perceived.

But what if a degree course ticks all the right boxes for you, yet seems a lot harder than the workload of your mates at other unis or on different courses? You may feel hard done by, even if the work is necessary.

Before accepting feedback and charters as a win-win situation, a learning curve is required from both an academic AND a student angle. This could take time and will at least experience some teething trouble, if not long-term problems that stubbornly refuse to go away.

None of this even starts to cover private providers, variable fees, scholarship funds, and so on. An early NUS response to the White Paper covers a lot of this and explains that the paper “raises more questions than it answers“. If you want more detail on these other issues, I suggest check out the NUS summary of the White Paper.

Whatever happens in the aftermath of all this, the government state that they want students to get as much value from their experience as possible. Therefore, HEFCE will be “taking on a new role as consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system”.

To specifically state ‘consumer champion’ shows the government’s real belief in the marketisation of the HE system. In which case, helping students to understand precisely why they want to be in HE and how to further their own goals has to be the way forward. If students MUST act as consumers, the key is to let them become far more than that. If stuck in that single mindset, there is not enough space to expand. Without that space, no amount of HE provision is going to set the student free to explore the possibilities truly available to them.

Regardless of how you may feel about the White Paper, the real challenge now — as I hope it has always been — is to give each and every student the best chance possible to achieve as an individual.

You aren’t simply being given control of the HE sector. You’re being given control of yourself. Make that a satisfying, worthwhile experience and you can make everything else follow suit.

Making student places available and how to fund them

Channel 4 News last night provided a debate on the number of students going in to higher education and whether more places should be provided to meet demand.

Many young people are finding it difficult to find a place at uni, despite outstanding grades.  Rejections may come down solely to a flawed personal statement, or some minor issue that’s become a major block.  In all this uncertainty, it’s clear that the current system of allocating places at university is not supporting all those who would benefit from higher education.

photo by id-iom

photo by id-iom

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of universities, was first to speak on the Channel 4 debate.  She said huge increase in applications forces the question of whether the economy needs this many graduates and, if so, how can we afford them?  Due to world competition, Piatt argued that quality should be maintained.  Why short change students by spreading a limited pot of money too thinly?

Piatt went on to say that the current system does not support greater numbers of students.  Rather than have everybody pay the same amount of money, Piatt said there should be variation, especially as some people earn much more than others.

Strangely, this last point reminded me of an argument for graduate tax, which the Russell Group opposes.  They would rather see the cap on fees raised, if not abolished altogether.

It’s no surprise that the Russell Group want higher fees. They would be able to charge much more, yet maintain a full quota of students.  If any set of universities can stay strong based on their history and prestige, it is this set.

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

Professor Leslie Davies, vice chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said that HE currently caters for different purposes, needs and lifestyles. However, there needs to be further diversification to meet learner’s needs.  For instance, not all students want to move away from home for three years now.  A big shift is happening with better informed students looking more closely at career prospects.

Davies explained that employers are looking for a wide range of qualifications and skills from the workforce, with many companies recognising A-levels as a way in, as well as Diplomas and vocational routes.  A “one size fits all” approach is no longer helpful, so young people require better advice and guidance to suit their personal situation.

NUS President, Aaron Porter, warned of greater costs for the government unless more places were created for students.  The burden on jobseeker’s allowance with many people out of work could be huge, he argued, with the number of jobs drying up and fierce competition for apprenticeships.

In terms of debt, Porter disagreed with Piatt that degree costs should be variable based on course studied.  Some people choose to study law & economics and want to be a teacher.  Why should they be saddled with more debt if they go on to that totally different vocation?

Porter said that both individuals and the state will lose out if the state continues to set an artificial cap on places.  Students should be able to attend university if they wish and demonstrate the ability and grades.  Compared with OECD countries, the UK is slipping down the tables fast.  More people are entering higher education in other countries compared with here, which could severely limit the UK workforce.

photo by garlandcannon

photo by garlandcannon

How did the students see all this?  Also in the studio was a mix of young people either going to university this year or who had missed out on a place at uni despite good grades.

A selection of comments:

  • Students are a burden, but they are also the next workforce who need the right skills and training;
  • University may not be the only choice, but why stop people who DO want to attend and who have made the grade?
  • Looks like re-stratification. Fine if you can afford Cambridge, otherwise forced to do something else like get a diploma from a ‘random college’;
  • Graduate tax is a good idea. However, differential rates do pose a difficulty and it’s not easy to argue the best solution;
  • If you want to go to uni and have your mind set on it, you should have that right.  University is not the only way to kickstart a career.
  • Social perception needs changing before we can better engage public on benefits of HE.  Students are still seen as a lazy bunch who do precious little, but it’s a misconception;
  • Student debt is a growing issue for those looking at future options.  More potential students being turned off now there’s a greater chance of debt skyrocketing further.

The debate made clear that everyone agreed on certain points:

  1. University isn’t the only valid option available to further career prospects;
  2. Better advice and guidance is required to help people make better choices;
  3. Current numbers of students are not sustainable unless some form of change is introduced.

The third point is where much of the agreement breaks down.  The debate rests on where change should be made.  Should diversity naturally lower the number of people filing in to universities?  Should fees be raised and students/graduates shoulder the burden?  Should the artificial cap on places be lifted and funding be sourced from other savings?

I feel the first two points are crucial in assisting the change required in the third point.  Luckily, there is so much agreement on those two points.

Student numbers and funding provision are still the big issues for the government.  In the process, individual choices and the widening of opportunity falls deeper to the background.  What if the way forward was actually moving further away from view?  This is even more pertinent after Nick Clegg’s recent speech on social mobility:

“This is a complex and contested area of both research and policy. And action to improve social mobility will take many years to take effect. In policy terms, it is like turning the wheel on an oil tanker.

“Promoting social mobility is a long-term business. And it is precisely for that reason that it is vital to establish now, at the beginning of our time in office, that promoting social mobility is at the top of our social agenda.”

Social mobility involves more than money and affordability.  This is just the same for universities. Funding may be the problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s also the solution.

Graduate Tax – A better alternative to tuition fees?

The National Union of Students (NUS) has published a blueprint that suggests setting up a People’s Trust for Higher Education.  It is, they say, “A fund built mainly on contributions by former undergraduate students and their employers, and the employers of current students”.

NUS Blueprint

Rather than ramp up fees, lift caps and get universities charging different fees, the NUS blueprint asks for a form of graduate tax that would be paid over a fixed period of 20 years, based on your earnings.  The more you earn, the more you pay back.  This has been suggested as a reasonable alternative to implementing higher and variable fees.  In fact, it’s designed to abolish fees completely.

This blueprint has been written to stimulate public debate, rather than answer every question, rather than prove a solution to every problem, rather than explain a perfect system.

That said, it is still a clear set of proposals aimed at creating a fair system for all and encouraging widening participation.

The NUS state:

“Our proposals would end the very notion of a course fee or price, and shut the door on a market in fees. Graduates should contribute to the future costs of higher education according to their actual future earnings, so that those who benefit the most from university by earning more will contribute more, in order to give future students access to higher education.”

However, Nick Taylor brings up a valid point that the NUS suggestions could be “Funding Our Failures”.  He asks us on his blog to “think of an alternative that doesn’t persecute successful students and reward idiots”.

Taylor’s blog post asks a reasonable question, especially as the NUS blueprint specifically states, “Those who leave higher education and, for whatever reason, have only a very low income for the rest of their working lives, may pay nothing at all, and will have relatively little debt compared to today.”

Problem areas like this do need to be addressed, otherwise the system is open to abuse.  It is, therefore, up to us to contribute further to help introduce a system that works for all.  The NUS brings us closer to a way of funding HE using methods other than charging sky-high fees.  So now we have a more detailed, greater supported and generally talked about platform to work from and mould into shape.

Although an open statement, the NUS blueprint also starts to talk about the future of HE given the likely boost in revenue that’s been calculated.  They call for the funding to:

“be conditional on new measures to monitor and improve the quality of the student experience and the impact of higher expenditure in the higher education sector. We believe this should be focused on the outcomes of higher education and the extent to which it actually changes people’s lives.”

If widening participation is truly being taken seriously by the government, it should be made clear to all that HE can change people’s lives for the better and that it’s worth being a part of.  There will always be the ‘Wasters’ that Nick Taylor refers to, but I believe more can be done to persuade these individuals that they can achieve more to the benefit of themselves and others.  It won’t work for everyone, but this new blueprint should go beyond the debate of graduate tax versus student fees and look to the way in which individuals can be encouraged to make the most of their time within HE.  University looks like a laugh because it really can be a laugh.  That doesn’t stop it from being a positive and rewarding move in life at the same time.

Finally, the blueprint opens the way for better support of lifelong learning (which is something I’m all for).  The graduate tax would be related to the number of credits that people have studied.  That allows people to move in and out of HE in different ways and benefit without being hit with huge fees, just for trying to gain more education.  A graduate tax would still need to be paid, but in such a way to allow greater access and better participation.

I am pleased to see today’s blueprint and hope for a wider debate within HE because of it.  While we may not have all the answers right now, we’re certainly a lot closer to finding an effective and fair system of funding higher education.  Now it’s up to us to get working on filling in the cracks and building a system that works for as many people as possible.

The more of us who get involved, the easier that should be.  Let’s do it!

Related Links:
The Guardian – Wes Streeting (President, NUS) on the blueprint

The Guardian’s own take on the graduate tax

BBC News

24dash

Compass Online

Metro

Times Online

University and College Union (UCU) response to the blueprint

Million+ response to the blueprint

The Guardian has put up a voting and commenting page about “Graduate Tax vs Tuition Fees“.  Be sure to watch the comments both for and against!