Our recent collection of essays on where higher education institutions spend their fees and how their strategies have changed since £9,000 fees came in included a chapter by Professor Edward Acton, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia. We are delighted to publish this response, in the form of a guest blog, by Connor Rand (firstname.lastname@example.org), Undergraduate Education Officer at UEA.
Edward Acton’s recent piece for the Higher Education Policy Institute highlights the crucial role of student-staff contact, but fails to grasp the holistic nature of a quality education.
Acton’s vision is that by driving up their student to staff ratio, institutions will improve the quality of the education they offer. More academics per students permits, in theory, more innovative teaching which can be delivered to smaller groups, complemented by ‘brisk and high-quality feedback’. These academics should embrace a ‘parallel career track’ as both teachers and researchers. Acton’s other key ingredient is student effort. He calls for the University of East Anglia to ‘cede only to Oxbridge in terms of undergraduate effort’ and for the sector to ‘make real a weekly study-time norm of 40 hours across the board’.
This recipe is based on a particular interpretation of what HE is for. For Edward Acton, ‘the very purpose of higher education’ is to ‘bring undergraduates abreast of the most advanced understanding in their field, itself constantly on the move; to install appreciation of the provisional and developing nature of knowledge; and to maximise their ability to apply research methods for the rest of their lives. At this level, the more each student applies himself or herself, the greater the reward.’
A focus on teaching is absolutely vital to the heart of HE. Ultimately, if the core education isn’t all that great and students are herded in to massive yet packed lecture halls, then the value of education for all involved is rapidly diminished. It’s also clear that the best teaching and the best research are inextricably linked. Good teaching breeds curiosity which drives forward research. What’s more, a focus on academic staff also enables institutions to think about how best to build a whole academic community which can be so much more than just a series of lectures and seminars jumbled together in a timetable. The ability to knock on a lecturer’s door to get more feedback or the chance to receive proper advice about your future from an experience professional in the field is invaluable, and this clearly requires a sufficient number of staff.
However, quantity doesn’t mean quality. Writing twice as much doesn’t make the ideas better. Driving up the staff numbers doesn’t in itself produce a good education. The kind of hot-house academic system Acton champions, even if desirable, needs a set of pre-requisites.
First off, it needs high-quality support services. It’s no good making students write twice as many essays if the institution can’t get them back in time for the next piece of work. At UEA students have expressed severe dissatisfaction with feedback return times, which in the past academic year have regularly exceed the 20 working day institutional limit. Investing in academic staff without the admin support for them creates timetables that don’t work, feedback that is late and confusion about assessment policy. None of these are conducive to climbing the National Student Survey tables, let alone to producing great education.
Secondly, calling for a 40-hour student week is blind ignorance of the difficulties faced by students in accessing higher education. The current model of HE funding relies on student part-time work to top up meagre state maintenance support, unless you are fortunate enough to have parents to pay your way. The exception to this is Oxbridge. Here, the increased workload and the ban on part-time employment are underpinned by the most generous packages of financial assistance. At Oxford, an undergraduate who’d gone through school on free school meals gets an annual bursary of £4,500 on top of £7,434 of state support, freeing them up to be in the library instead of funding their studies. UEA, on the other hand, has been cutting its bursary provision for the poorest student down to just £2,000. It’s no good imposing 40-hour weeks on students who can’t afford to eat.
Like any complicated system, or a good meal, you can’t simply increase one ingredient without consideration of the impact on the whole. For instance, at UEA making the staff student ratio the overriding priority has in certain instances simply led to departments hiring administrative staff on academic contracts and playing the system. Not only does this defat the point of the strategy, but it also confuses the student.
Ultimately, what is the staff quality? Will an institution be able to make the investments in staff training and development to ensure that their growing body of academic staff are in fact of high quality, and not just there to build numbers? Setting more work is a much simpler educational goal than delivering inspiration teaching. Oxbridge, Acton’s cherished example, doesn’t just succeed because it has loads of staff. Some of them are also pretty good.
Will an institution also embrace equality, so that all its staff are supported to get the top of their game and be recognised by their institution? Investment in equality isn’t just a moral imperative, but also improves educational quality, as students get taught by the best, regardless of gender or race.
Acton’s definition of HE is also severely limited. It might work for a dedicated Liberal Arts style college, but it doesn’t work for UEA. At UEA there are almost 1,000 undergraduate nursing students, who work some of the longest and toughest student years. They travel long distances to placements when other students are taking a reading week. Many do this on minimal financial support and whilst juggling looking after families. Where do they fit in a definition of HE which is focused solely on the academic and not the vocational? High quality higher education isn’t just about a high student staff ratio and a big workload. Although these play a part, they are ultimately, as Graham Gibbs points out, part of a bigger picture.
UEA was set up to ‘do different’. So what if one student writes 150,000 words in a course and another half the amount. Maybe the fewer were the better words? Maybe that student spent their time dreaming up the new groundbreaking concepts which will shape our generation’s future, rather than being tied to churning out repeated essays? A bigger picture recognises that a student’s education is about the whole experience. It’s about the friends made on campus for life and the social skills honed in societies. It’s about developing a healthy and sustainable lifestyle which works for life, not just for the next deadlines. It’s about giving all students an opportunity to realise their potential, whether or not they can afford to study 40 hours per week. It is, as Acton notes, about bringing students into contact with groundbreaking knowledge and world-shaping ideas. But this needs a better approach than merely giving institutions more teachers and students more essays.