This guest blog has been written for HEPI by Gervas Huxley and Mike Peacey, the authors of a new academic article that has received considerable media coverage for shining a spotlight on teaching intensity, which is increasingly an interest of the Government too.

In research just published in the journal Fiscal Studies, we examine teaching at UK universities in more detail than any study since the 1963 Robbins Report. We compared the teaching of Economics, History and Physics across 67 universities. We also made a historical comparison with 1963, using data drawn from the appendices to the Robbins Report prepared by Richard Layard and Claus Moser.

Our research has provoked considerable discussion. In this blog, we respond to a few of the questions that have arisen.

Why use 1963 as a benchmark?

The terms of reference given to the Robbins committee included a request to ‘review the pattern of full-time higher education… [and advise the government] on what principles its long-term development should be based’. To meet these objectives, an audit of universities was undertaken. The resulting appendices include information on almost every conceivable aspect of what it was like to be at university in 1963. Most importantly, the report contains information that universities themselves provided on contact hours, class size and feedback.

As far as we can tell, apart from the annual HEPI / HEA Student Academic Experience Survey started in 2006, no data of this kind has been collected since 1963! The Student Experience Survey is by far the best evidence we have on how students view their university education. However, the questions on contact hours and class size are insufficiently granular to permit most of the comparisons we wanted to make.

What about Browne?

In 2009, Lord Browne was asked by the Government to ‘lead an independent Panel to review the funding of higher education and make recommendations to ensure that teaching at our HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] is sustainably financed’, and to ensure that ‘teaching is world class’. It was always understood that the review was likely to recommend an increase in undergraduate tuition fees and that this increase would improve the financial position of UK universities. In return for helping to ensure more sustainable finding, Browne stated that universities must ‘persuade students that they should “pay more” in order to “get more”’. It does not seem to have occurred to Browne that this contract had to be kept by both sides – by students and by universities themselves.

Nor were the details of how students were supposed to benefit ever made clear. Browne’s failure to undertake an audit equivalent to that of 1963, made it impossible to judge whether universities had kept their side of the bargain.

What about the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)?

The granularity of the data collected by HESA is astonishing. However, almost all the information relates to the characteristics and performance of students. When the Government asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to investigate teaching intensity, they asked to license our data because they had not collected any information on the teaching arrangements at British universities. It turned out it was not just students who knew nothing about how much we teach – the body responsible for ensuring the performance of the sector didn’t even have the relevant information!

What has all this to do with tuition fees?

The Browne review was the culmination of a process that began with the 1997 Dearing Report:

The learning environment of students today is quite unlike that in the 1960s. The dramatic increase in student numbers, which has not been matched by a proportionate increase in funding, staffing or other resources, has resulted in increased class sizes, decreased class contact time for students, and an increase in students studying off campus. [p.35]

The Dearing Report recommended the introduction of tuition fees precisely because the committee believed the declining unit of resource was adversely affecting the quality of undergraduate education. From the point of view of undergraduates themselves, perhaps the most visible evidence of this was increasing class sizes. The (re)introduction of tuition fees in 1998 has resulted in a considerable recovery in the unit of resource. We find it hard to see how Browne’s ‘pay more to get more’ commitment can be understood unless it implied some reduction in class size or increase in contact time.

The HEPI / HEA Student Academic Experience Survey data finds that contact hours have changed little since the introduction of tuition fees. In 2006, students reported an average of 13.7 hours of contact per week. In 2012, 2016, and 2017, the numbers were 13.8, 13.6, and 13.7 respectively.

However, the data on class size is grouped into large ‘buckets’ that make precise comparison difficult. We felt that there was a need to collect information than enabled more precise comparison of how teaching is delivered across institutions, accounting for the many ways in which teaching is undertaken.

Our findings imply that some students receive much better value for money than others. For a market to function properly, participants must be able to compare what is offered by different providers. The enormous variation in teaching intensity found in our data strongly suggests that in the market for teaching price signals are weak. It was always anticipated the tuition fees would be variable. One of the ways in which it was expected that the fee would vary was by subject (Greeneway and Haines 2000). If the data we have collected had been publically available the uniform fee would not have been possible.

This illustrates our fundamental principle: to function properly markets require information. The absence of market forces results from imperfect information. In those dimensions that can be observed – for example, research – universities and individual academics operate in a highly competitive environment. Students also compete for places at the most prestigious universities, and universities compete for the highest ability students. Unfortunately, in the absence of information about teaching intensity (as opposed to contact hours alone) school leavers have no way to choose between those universities offering more (or less) of the tuition service they are ultimately paying for. In turn, universities are not incentivised to provide more of the primary service (tuition) paid for by taxpayers and students. 

What is to be done?

Universities must publish data on teaching intensity in addition to contact hours. We believe that widespread adoption of our metric would help to create a more competitive environment for both students and universities and a more effectively functioning higher education market.

The last word can go to Dearing:

“while higher education has increased its class sizes [and] reduced its teaching time, … , it has done so on the basis of little evidence of the consequences and with little strategic research in place to monitor them.” Dearing report 8.64