What do students want? The dangers of oversimplification…

There’s a story doing the rounds this morning about student-staff contact hours at universities.

“Survey shows university teaching hours have barely increased as fees rise by £8,000″… says the Guardian.

I can see this has already produced a few reactions – I just thought I’d add my tuppence worth (given that it’s all about value for money). It’s just scratching the surface of a big issue, of course, but I still want to say it. I won’t waste much of my (and my students’) valuable time over this – but there are some real dangers in oversimplification of this issue. My biggest concern is about the overall idea: that ‘contact hours’ is the key measure of value for money, of the value of the course, and of what students might or even should want to get from their courses, and from their lecturers. The more this message is pushed – and I’m very disappointed by the Guardian and others for pushing it – the more the students and their parents are likely to believe it. The question is, are contact hours the real key? If they are, and if contact hours are increased, then other things are squeezed, and real, important and valuable things are lost.

Students want well prepared lectures and seminars

That should be a given – and preparing lectures takes time! It really does. Planning time, researching time, updating time, making slides (because students also, quite rightly, like to have good slides not just for the lectures but for their notes and revision), preparing reading lists and so on. Lectures also need to be up to date – for some subjects more than others, of course, but it’s relevant to an extent for almost all subjects. In some of my areas, like internet and privacy law, things are changing almost day by day. Students need up-to-date information – and well informed lecturers!

Students want their work to be assessed well

Today, as soon as I’ve finished this blog, I’ll be embarking on a day of marking exams. Marking exams takes time – and should take time. It matters to the students, and that means that lecturers need to take enough time to properly assess the work. In a qualitative subject that means much, much more than ticking off boxes, and it’s something that can’t be automated – unless we decide to turn our exams into multiple choice exercises or their equivalent, which in many subjects is not only close to impossible be entirely inappropriate.

Students want lecturers who know their stuff

…and that means that they need lecturers to have the time to do their research, to do their thinking, to do their writing. They need their lecturers to go to conferences and present and listen to research. It may seem like a gravy-train or a bit indulgent, and sometimes it can end up that way to an extent, but it’s also the life-blood of a lot of our work.

Students want lecturers who are happy and confident

…because happy and confident lecturers are more likely to make their learning an enjoyable – and productive experience. They’re going to be better at answering questions – and happier to do so. This ties in very closely with their being up to date – if you know your stuff, or rather know enough of your stuff, you’re going to be a better teacher and more helpful in almost every way. How do you get happy and confident lecturers? Well, you need to be able to recruit good people and keep them interested – so give them enough space and time to do the stuff they’re interested in, which often means research…

Students want to have a good time

This point is really crucial, even if it goes against the grain for a government that seems intent on turning the entire education system into a production line to make effective workers come out the other end. Students need to be able to enjoy themselves – not just because everyone should be able to enjoy themselves, but because a happy (in a balanced way) student is generally a better learner. Obsess about results, obsess about ‘contact hours’ and worry about ‘value for money’ and you’re less likely to get to grips with your subject, to explore the possibilities, to be inspired for the future.

Measurement and ‘accountability’ is not always right

I don’t think what I’ve written is true only of universities: rather, it reflects a much deeper malaise with the way we try to run our society, our institutions, our businesses and our government. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that measurement, targets and ‘accountability’ are the key to solving all our ‘problems’. It’s had (and is still having) a huge impact on our health services, our education system, our police services – indeed, our whole justice system. It’s a mindset that needs challenging.

That’s not to deny that measurement matters – or indeed, in this particular context, to suggest that student contact hours don’t matter. They do. Very much so. But they need to be seen in context, and as part of a much, much, bigger picture. Putting the entire focus on the simple, measurable figure can, in the end, hinder rather than help. If university lecturers have less time to prepare, less time to research, less time to keep up to date, less time to think, in the end, the students will be the losers.

UPDATED: Note, this is all entirely anecdotal and qualitative… there’s no empirical back-up to it at all!