The NUS has raised concerns that students are not getting value for money from their university experience.
With this year’s introduction of higher fees of up to £9,000, the issue of whether students are receiving enough contact time is being questioned. The government has taken steps by forcing universities this September to publish information regarding contact-hours for each course, which will form part of the new standardized KIS (key information sets) which prospective students will receive.
However, the NUS have stressed that more than this is needed. Rachel Wenstone, NUS Vice-President, commented, “The quality of education is becoming more and more of an issue. Contact hours don’t mean anything unless they are high quality, and you have a real relationship with your tutors”.
The NUS is advocating greater transparency regarding the number of students in tutorials and seminars, and guarantees that students will not spend their years at university catching up on sleep in lecture halls around the country. Although some universities have reacted positively to the Union’s comments, Professor Graham Henderson, the Vice-Chancellor of Teesside University, highlighted some potential problems. He argued that institutions suffering financially may be tempted to cut tutorials and seminars and save money by operating on a more lecture-based system, which under the KIS data would count as increased contact time. This would then present a fallaciously positive picture of a university experience with high quantity but low quality contact time.
David Palfreyman, the bursar at New College Oxford, agreed with the Union on the importance of small tutorial groups. He said, ‘There is nowhere to hide in a tutorial of two. If you’ve not done anything, there is pressure from your mates as well as your tutor.’ However, Palfreyman was not optimistic as to the feasibility of other universities emulating Oxford and Cambridge, owing to financial constraints. “We have charitable endowments that we lavish on you. In essence, HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) plus fees is around £7,500 and we spend two times that on a year of undergraduate teaching. With the new £9000 fee, after the spend of OFFA (Offer for Fair Trade Access), we will get around £7,750 towards the £15k or so.
“We await to see whether other Russell Group Universities will improve undergraduate tuition as opposed to the fixation on the ‘Kash and Kudos’ of research – which drives the global league tables, no one cares about undergraduate tuition – and also what will happen at the pile-‘em high cheap end of the range”
.Students from a range of universities have reacted positively to the NUS’ demands, indicating their preference for intimate tutorial groups. An Oxford PPEist commented, “whilst lectures are at times beneficial, I definitely learn the most from tutorials or small classes”.
A Classics student at Bristol agreed. “On average I receive eight contact hours a week, which mostly consist of lesson-style tutorials and lectures. The tutorials can be intense but it is still quite easy to avoid answering questions, as there are over 15 people in each class. Personally, I would prefer more contact hours, or more intimate sessions with tutors, so that students might be encouraged to work their hardest and have an opportunity to impress tutors with their ideas”.