May 16, 2007

Staff–student ratios

In the May 4th issue of the THES, there was an article about staff-student ratios in universities, including a league table, selected elements of which are:-

  • Best ratio: 3.6, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Next best: 5.9, at Cranfield University
  • UK average for universities and other HE institutions: 16.8
  • Warwick is in 30th place out of 118 institutions with a SSR of 15
  • The worst recorded score was Middlesex with 26.4.

These are interesting figures, and the headline of the article, predictably, reads “Class sizes spark fears over quality”. But while one can see that there may be issues with some of the out-liers, there are fifty universities who are within plus or minus 2 of the average. For those fifty universities, is there an issue? The staff-student ratio is certainly one factor to consider when trying to measure teaching quality. But the hours spent on teaching by members of staff is presumably just as important; if academics at university A have fifteen contact hours per week, and those at university B have only eight, then this will swamp the SSR number. And the expertise of the staff, both in the subject being taught and in the art of teaching, must also be important (and a separate article on the same page discusses the extent to which staff are increasingly being asked to teach subjects with which they are not very familiar).

But the most interesting data is unfortunately not included in the article; the trend. There is plenty of anecdotal stuff in the text to suggest that academics perceive that things are getting worse. But there is no comparable table of ratios per institution from five or ten or twenty years ago. More than twenty years ago, I attended tutorials with perhaps half a dozen other students. I have no idea whether that would be common-place or exceptional now.

I also wonder what proportion of prospective students (or their parents) will be aware of, or attach significance to, these numbers. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that when students decide which university to attend, the quality of teaching is not a major factor in their decision, compared with location, campus facilities, costs, and the availability of courses which match their interests. Some students have very little awareness of how their course will be taught until after they arrive. If one were to take a ruthlessly capitalist approach, would it be all together surprising if universities chose not to allocate their resources on improving an aspect of their performance which, arguably, many of their customers are not particularly aware of when they’re making their purchasing decision?


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