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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Tuition Fee and Contact Hours Calculator

Instructions and Disclaimer

Download Calculator
The calculator is an Excel 2007 Spreadsheet. To run the user-friendly front end, you must have macros enabled: Download Contact.xlsm

Welcome to the University Tuition Fee and Contact Hours Calculator. I have developed this in order better to inform the ongoing debate about whether current tuition fees (or future increased tuition fees) provide value for money in the quantitative terms of "contact hours" i.e. the amount of time a student is taught directly in lectures or small groups.

There are a whole range of averages and inaccuracies built in to the calculator, which make it only a rough guide to be used with caution at own risk, rather than a perfect statistical tool. There are also a variety of problems with assuming that more contact hours equate to a better university education.

Before downloading and using the calculator, therefore, you should read the Problems and Qualifications section below, if not this essay in its entirety.

The calculator is an Excel spreadsheet, with a user-friendly front-end. You will need to enable macros in order to run the input form.

The following essay discusses some of the background to the contact hour issue, the relationship between tuition fees, infrastructure or teaching-support costs, and direct teaching. Using the calculator, two examples of the contact hours and tuition fee contributions in subjects in the sciences and arts are presented. From these, the essay draws some tentative conclusions about the future for tuition fees, and how they might lead to changes in the types of teaching that predominate on particular subjects or institutions.

Essay

Introduction

With the advent of university tuition fees, and plans to increase the fees currently being considered by the Browne review, increasing amounts of attention are being paid to whether universities offer their students, also now consumers, good value for money. Results from the National Student Survey suggest that most students - around 4 in 5 - are pleased with their courses and the quality of teaching on them. Around the same percentage are satisfied with the provision of library and IT resources. Less satisfactory is feedback on work. Four in ten students said that feedback had neither been prompt nor detailed enough.

Although it seems that Higher Education is generally performing well, then, it is likely that those less than satisfied with courses, teaching, or feedback may be the currently thin end of a wedge that will become increasingly large in correlation with increasing tuition fees. Indeed, Peter Mandelson (Secretary for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) recently argued that students should exploit their consumer power to drive university standards upwards, by forcing universities to compete with each other in terms of the quality of courses and teaching they offer. I have argued elsewhere that the idea that students can push up teaching quality from below seems to me to be misguided, and instead governments should focus on pulling teaching quality up from the top.

Nevertheless, a proportion of students will undoubtedly become more vocal and choosy over time, and with this trend, which will see ever more complex and comprehensive league tables, one controversial issue seems set to become a focus because it translates various issues of quality into those of numerical quantity. This issue is that of the "contact hour," or the amount of time a student spends in taught classes, as opposed to individual study. In the consumer marketplace of Higher Education, the number of contact hours provided by a university will become an increasingly prominent measure of university standards.

There are numerous falsehoods in the belief that more contact time equates to a better or higher quality of university teaching and learning. Many of these problems are discussed later in this essay. Indeed, in a 2008 report on contact hours and teaching, the National Union of Students showed that, especially towards the final year of study, students themselves recognise that self-study is as or more important to a university education than direct teaching. The report also showed that 75% of students believe that the amount of contact that they receive is sufficient.

Nevertheless, the minority here who perceive staff contact as insufficient, coupled with the minority in the National Student Survey who are generally dissatisfied with their courses, are certain to become more widespread as tuition fees increase. This is primarily because the contact hour is the one handle by which students can directly quantify or measure the relationship between their tuition fees, and the university education for which it pays.

One of my discoveries and motivations for constructing this calculator is that there is currently poor information about how tuition fees are spent in supporting teaching - the percentage which contribute towards infrastructure such as library services, versus the percentage of fees which pay for staff contact time. Consequently, one can question how a tuition fee (3225 for 2009-10) which is pretty much universally charged across different universities and subjects can be fair, given the apparently different costs for supplying different numbers and types of contact hours or infrastructure services across different subjects. An arts student would likely be able to state the number of class hours they sit, and would probably note that their friend in the sciences has twice as many; they will also admit that many of their own contact hours are in small group classes rather than lectures. Ask an arts student how much their library spends on buying books or subscribing to journals for their subject per year, however, and they are unlikely to be able to tell you. Since contact hours for arts subjects are typically low, and the justification for this is that a student will need to make more use of library and IT resources in independent study, and that contact hours may be in smaller groups, information about infrastructure costs and the costs of small and large group teaching ought to inform students about how and why they are paying the same as a peer in the sciences, who might have two or three times as many contact hours, but of a different type.

However, currently information about the way tuition fees are split between contributing towards infrastructure costs (such as libraries) and direct teaching is buried. One thing I discovered in trying to construct the calculator is that although in principal in the public domain, in practice the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data sets (particularly the Higher Education Management Statistics most relevant to this debate) are prohibitively expensive for individuals, costing 65.00. Yet it is within these statistics that details about institutional spending on libraries, for example, are contained. This lack of transparency makes it hard to discern precisely how much of the tuition fee is spent on direct teaching time, and how much contributes towards infrastructure and supporting a student's self-study. One of my strong conclusions from having produced this calculator is that such statistics ought to be made readily available to prospective students. By making students aware that not all of their tuition fee goes directly on teaching contact time, the calculator should help to inform and complicate the debate about how resources need to be spent differently on different subjects, some of which may be teaching intensive, others of which may be infrastructure intensive. Thus the calculator can help to indicate whether an individual student's tuition fee is allocated fairly according to their needs; this is significant given that those who claim fees should be doubled do so in part because it is at this level that variable fees and a more market style system will come about.

Another telling problem I encountered - and one presumably faced by prospective students also - is that institutions do not tend to make available their precise number or type of contact hours. They will often state that teaching is given using a combination of tutorials and lectures, for example, but not stipulate how the two are balanced. In particular, whilst institutions herald their small group teaching in prospectuses or on websites, they do not explain that tutorial support might occur only once or twice a term for each module. Nor do they give indications of the number of students in each type of teaching. The calculator allows students to see the substantial cost implications involved in teaching a small group tutorial, or a medium sized seminar, or a lecture, and to evaluate whether those costs justify the quality of that teaching method. A student who sits a seminar-based course with 15 students one year, may feel teaching quality has suffered when the next year a similar course is taught with 30 students, or as a lecture module open to hundreds. The calculator makes clear just how larger group teaching is more efficient - from the university's point of view - than the former, in terms of the proportion of tuition fees allocated to that type of en masse contact hour. This offers context for students who want to complain about declining standards of teaching which may be a consequence of university drives for efficient use of staff time, even at a time of ever-higher tuition fees. Conversely, the figures, some of which show just how little the tuition fee contributes to some contact hours (just 3.33 in my worked example of a science course below), might justify a university moving to teach in larger groups, as a way of allowing it to also preserve the diversity of courses on offer. Or it might explain why an arts student who has a small number of small group contact hours is getting as good value for money as a science student who sits a large number of cost-effective lectures.

It should be recognised that the calculator represents the relationship between tuition fees and teaching from the student's point of view. It shows what proportion of a student's tuition fees goes towards different types of teaching. However, the figures produced do not reflect the true cost of teaching for the university, only how much an individual student's fees contribute towards it. In fact, the true costs are higher, but are propped up by government subsidies, and by other forms of income, such as from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

I have developed the calculator, then, in order to allow students to evaluate the relationship between their tuition fees and the number of hours they receive of face-to-face teaching. The calculator quite crudely measures contact hours as if these were the be all and end all of a university education; as I discuss below, more contact hours do not necessarily develop to a better educated student. However, the calculator also demonstrates how tuition fees are split between infrastructure overheads and direct teaching, as well as how the direct teaching proportion changes depending on the type of teaching. This should encourage students to ask more involved questions about the more qualitative value of the education they receive from different aspects of the university. On a course with few contact hours, does a student feel that the infrastructure component is justified given the quality of library services which such a student may make more use of in their self-study periods? Does a student want his or her arts course to continue to deliver small group tutorials in spite of the cost ineffectiveness of these? If a student feels that their lectures are not effective modes of teaching and that they might do better in self study, should they encourage their university to reduce contact hours, which have a disproportionately high cost to the university on lecture intensive courses, and instead to put more money into virtual learning support?

At this stage, and before going on to some of the qualifications with which the calculator should be used, I would note that the calculator went some way to overturning my own impression that universities squeeze tuition fees unfairly. Indeed, it was the fact that there did not seem to be any consistent way of evaluating the raw facts about the contact hours issue that compelled me to develop it in the first place. Having the figures more readily available has forced me to confront some of my own assumptions. In my own subject (English) I was surprised to see just how much small group tuition costs, compared to lectures, leaving arguably little room for universities to provide more staff-student contact. On the other hand, when playing around with future scenarios with tuition fees of around 7000 (which Universities UK proposes as a benchmark in their report Changing Landscapes), some of the "income" from lecture-based courses becomes remarkably high, and the quality of teaching on these courses would need to be outstanding to give value for money in this case. Although not the most important issue to be looked at by the Browne review group, the issue of how contact hours are to be informed by higher tuition fees is a pertinent one, and to that end I hope that the calculator is useful for current students, whilst also being of value to anyone considering the effect of tuition fees on Higher Education.

Problems and Qualifications with the Contact Hour Calculator

Calling this a "calculator" is in some senses a misnomer, since the calculations it produces are anything but perfect. There are two types of problems or qualifications with the calculator, which anyone should be aware of before using it: the use of averages, and the flawed implication that more contact hours equate to a better value education.

The primary inaccuracy derives from the fact that the calculator asks for average figures, so as to keep it accessible, especially to its intended student users.

The infrastructure spend is a per capita average across students studying all subjects. Drawing on HESA data, The Complete University Guide gives statistics for spending on "Facilities" (sports, careers services, health, counselling, etc), and on "Academic Services" (library and computing facilities, museums, galleries and observatories). I have totalled these two facets as "infrastructure," and deducted this from tuition fees, with the assumption that most (if not all) of the remaining amount will be dedicated to direct teaching, rather than to overheads and teaching support.

However, a student who makes substantial use of support services or sports facilities costs more than one who does not, yet both types would need to enter the same average figure for their institution. Alternatively, some subjects may make more use of electronic texts and journals, with a student here requiring primarily good IT support; other subjects may require heavy use of physical library resources (i.e. books) and the provision of facilities for students to work silently or in groups in a library. Again, the lack of precise, readily available information about the infrastructure spending for a student doing a particular subject is a problem here. This is also an important point to consider in relation to the effect of higher tuition fees, especially in arts subjects, and one I will come back to later.

Additionally, the figure that the calculator requests for the number of students per tutorial, seminar or lecture must be an average. A module sat by 50 students will have a very different tuition fee "income" (from the university's point of view) to a lecture with 200. A student who sits only less popular modules will, therefore, apparently be receiving better "value for money" from their tuition fees - in the sense that the university must spend more to provide for their contact hours - than a student doing exactly the same subject, but who sits only those modules which have a high number of students.

The calculator is intended to present the relationship between tuition fees and contact hours from the student's point of view, since that perspective is currently insufficiently represented. The figures produced show what a student's tuition fee contributes to a basic contact hour (i.e. one student, in one contact hour, with one lecturer), or to a lecture contact hour which receives proportionate contributions from several tens or hundreds of students. However, as mentioned above, this does not necessarily equate to the true cost of providing that contact hour from the university's perspective, which may be higher and supported by government subsidies and other sources of income.

Finally, the calculator looks only at the contact hours for one year. The relationship between annual tuition fees and the contact hours on a given course taught in a particular year is not a fair representation of the student experience over three or four years. For example, many degrees will involve a dissertation element in the final year, which by its nature entails little staff time; however, that is not to say that this is a less valid part of the educational experience. Similarly, many engineering or science courses allow for a year of industrial placement, which may teach valuable practical skills and work experience. Such a placement would not count towards contact hours within the university, yet the quality of the company in which a student is placed may be a direct consequence of the prestige research relationships that exist between the company and the university.

These statistical biases are problematic, but at the same time for any one individual student they do not prevent the calculator from being of general use to ascertain the relationship between tuition fees and contact hours in any one year. Far more problematic, though, is the notion of the "contact hour" as the measure of university teaching.

The problem of the work placement outlined above is a usefully concrete example of the fact that the quality of the university teacher, their research expertise, and perhaps connections with industry, are not taken into account when measuring the amount of contact time that an academic spends in front of students. A contact hour in an incomprehensible lecture by a well published professor might as well not have taken place. By contrast, a dissertation student who bumps into a junior researcher in a corridor, who then discusses the topic with motivational enthusiasm, may have received the single best five minutes of contact of their university careers; yet such contact is not formal and so not measured. This goes back to Cardinal Newman's original principle that the special nature of a university is that it brings academics and students into proximity, not only in terms of their ideas but also physically, as a community living over an extended period under one roof. The contact hour is not the only or best form of intellectual - or even physical - contact a university should be focused on promoting, even if it is the most measurable one. Universities offer opportunities for additional "contact hours" beyond those stipulated and required by a course. A music student who leads their university's orchestra may be learning as much relevant in this student-run activity as they do in a one-to-one tutorial with a member of academic staff; a university's public lecture programme on Romantic Poetry may be of equal value to a student as the official lecture module is.

From the teacher's point of view, the contact hour does not evaluate the time taken to prepare and administer a course, to develop virtual learning environments and other supporting materials, to mark essays and tests, and to set exams. Neither does it count the fact that the contact hour might be led by a lecturer who has developed his or her expertise in a particular field through sustained research, which then may inform teaching. This is, indeed, the key difference between university teaching staff, and teachers in primary, secondary, and further education.

Finally, of course, as the philosopher A.C. Grayling (among many others) has argued, more contact hours do not necessarily equate to a better educational experience, if the primary role of a university is to inculcate independent learning and life skills, and hence the transferable abilities that can be taken into the workplace. In my own subject, English, it is striking that the single most popular career destination for English Literature graduates is business and consultancy. It does not matter to an accountancy or financial firm that a student can recite twelve Keats poems, or describe the plot of Pride and Prejudice. What matters is that in discussing texts in tutorials, in reading critical material, and in writing essays about literary works, the English student becomes able to summarise information, to write accurately, to present confidently and to work independently. Giving the English student a full day of contact hours where the lecturer recites hundreds of poems or talks about yet another Jane Austen novel would add little to their knowledge that they could not more expediently gain from a book, and would not develop the underlying skills which make them employable in the first place.

The calculator and spreadsheet itself provides explanations behind each of the inputs and results, and I hope that the formulae I have used are sound at root, even if the figures that the user passes through them may be imperfect, and the results must be qualified by the above problem with using contact hours as the measure of the effective spending of tuition fees.

A Tentative Case Study

The calculator is primarily intended to provide current students with some concept of the relationship between their tuition fees, and the amount of teaching they are receiving at their institution, at a particular stage in their course.

As I have said above, one of the problems I encountered when developing the calculator was finding clear information about the number or type of contact hours at various institutions. Such information will, naturally, be more available and relevant to a student actually sitting a course. However, using the calculator, I have worked out the broad differences between first year courses at two institutions, which are ranked the best of all non-collegiate institutions in their traditional science and arts subjects: Chemistry and English.

(For many subjects, collegiate institutions - especially Oxford and Cambridge - come out at or near the top. However, the infrastructure spending measure for these is compromised, because it is often concentrated in colleges which do not supply data to HESA, and therefore the university's infrastructure spend per student appears lower than it actually is in net terms.)

The two examples provide a ball-park example of how the calculator can be used to inform discussion of tuition fees. I have made guesses for the number of students attending lectures (150 students), tutorials (8 students) and seminars (20 students), and I have also deducted four weeks from the published term dates, to account for an exam period at the end. As an academic used to being rigorous and transparent, I admit to failing these standards in this case: I will not give the names of the institutions, nor sources for the data, since the following is by no means accurate and I do not want to run the risk of libel. However, even with these caveats, the comparison does give a broad indication of subject differences or, rather, the differences between teaching a combination of small groups and once-weekly lectures (as often happens in the arts), or teaching substantially through many weekly lectures supported by group laboratory or seminar work (as often happens in the sciences).

In both cases, tuition fees have been input at the 2009-2010 ceiling of 3225. The infrastructure spend per student has been calculated from The Complete University Guide.

Chemistry

Lecture contact hours per week12
Seminar contact hours per week6.5
Tutorial contact hours per week3
Total contact hours over 24 teaching weeks516
Proportion tuition fee spent on infrastructure (facilities and academic support) 1509
Proportion tuition fee spent on direct teaching1716
Basic direct teaching tuition fee contribution per contact hour3.33
Direct teaching tuition fee contribution per tutorial (assume 8 students)26.64
Direct teaching tuition fee contribution per seminar (assume 20 students)66.60
Direct teaching tuition fee contribution per lecture (assume 150 students)499.50

English

Lecture contact hours per week4
Seminar contact hours per week4
Tutorial contact hours per week0.25
Total contact hours over 24 teaching weeks215
Proportion tuition fee spent on infrastructure (facilities and academic support) 1806
Proportion tuition fee spent on direct teaching1419
Basic direct teaching tuition fee contribution per contact hour6.62
Direct teaching tuition fee contribution per tutorial (assume 1 student per tutorial)6.62
Direct teaching tuition fee contribution per seminar (assume 20 students)132.40
Direct teaching tuition fee contribution per lecture (assume 150 students)993.00

At first glance, both results would seem to justify the claims of Universities UK and many vice-chancellors (especially of research-intensive universities) that teaching is not sustainable based on the current level of tuition fees, if fees alone are to cover teaching costs. In the case of Chemistry, a small group tutorial (at 26.64) would barely if at all cover staff costs for that contact hour, let alone preparation time for the tutor. The unusual case of the one-to-one tutorial support offered by the institution teaching English is even more untenable, even if it is a very high quality mode of teaching from the student's point of view. Both cases might support even the more extravagant claims of institutions such as Oxford, which argue that it loses 8000 per year on every student taught there. (In fact, running the figures for English at Oxford through the calculator, and bearing in mind that the infrastructure spend appears lower than it actually is, because this is a collegiate university, the amount left over for tuition is actually at least minus 1.00, and probably even less. Therefore, teaching in a subject such as English, which typically involves 1-2 tutorials per week, 1-2 college classes, and optional lectures, must quite likely be delivered at a loss to the university.)

The costs of teaching more with small groups and less with lectures must also be exacerbated because the preparation time required for the two will be quite different. Small group teaching should be responsive to the needs and interests of a particular group of students; that is precisely why it is such an effective and stimulating method. As someone who teaches in tutorial environments, I know very well that in order to keep a tutorial fresh and energetic with each new year group of students, it is necessary to go back and rework preparation done in previous years. A lecture, however, implies the delivery of ideas and concepts tied to a course syllabus. When a syllabus or research findings have not significantly changed from year to year, neither does the lecture preparation need to be substantially altered.

But whilst the burden surrounding lectures may be less, the sheer amount of lecture-based teaching provided in the above science example supports the argument that science subjects are considerably more expensive to deliver than arts subjects in general, but that the small group emphasis in arts subjects is an extremely inefficient use of tuition fees, from the university's point of view.

This then implies that there is room for manoeuvre in terms of variable charging across subjects, which might well come in along with a general raising of the tuition fee threshold. Universities UK argues that it is only at around the 7000 per annum level that variable charges for courses and across institutions would take effect, and at which teaching can be sustained at its present rate; below that, most courses and institutions would charge the same across the board, and teaching may even cost more than tuition fee contributions. For the Chemistry course modelled above, there is a clear argument for saying that even a tuition fee increase to 7000 would simply absorb the costs implied by the current 3.33 basic proportion spent on the contact hour, rather than providing for more teaching hours.

Of course, there are wider problems related to this. Charging a significantly higher tuition fee for science subjects compared to arts subjects would compromise the push to deliver Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) graduates into the economy. However, if the higher fee was spent on making science subjects more attractive and accessible, through providing more teaching time, this could effectively keep the cost of tuition unsustainable from the university's point of view. There would clearly be a need, therefore, for additional funding to support sustained, perhaps even additional, contact hours in these subjects in order to attract and pass more students - but the bill cannot be passed on to students lest this deter them from undertaking courses most relevant to the wider economy.

Meanwhile, the proportion of the tuition fee dedicated to directly teaching the English student in the above example seems peculiarly small. It is hard to believe that the infrastructure spend on such a student - in particular the provision of library facilities to support the independent learning implied by limited contact hours - can be as large as the average figures make out (1806). If tuition fees as a whole are doubled, it is scarcely feasible that the infrastructure spending most relevant to English students, library services, would also double. The library for the top institution modelled here is likely already to subscribe to all the major journal databases in this subject, and to have substantial collections of physical material. A doubling of the fee, then, would put a different slant on the "income" from a lecture, which would reach towards the 2000 mark, or from a seminar, which would reach to around 250. Since the tuition fee would unlikely be used to pull up infrastructure, such lectures and seminars would have to provide a spectacular quality of teaching to justify this tag. Alternatively, the English student paying higher tuition fees might justifiably argue that the amount of tuition fee that needs to go towards infrastructure costs should stay the same, since the higher fees are unlikely to provide significantly better library services, for example. Instead, the main part of the increase in tuition fees should go towards what their name suggests: providing for small group or individual tuition.

As an aside to the student-centred factors, there is another implication which can be teased out, relating to university teaching staff who are part time or hourly paid, such as myself. When I plug in the figures for a first year English course at my institution, which is consistently rated within the top ten departments in league tables, the basic amount of tuition fee spent per contact hour is around 10. For a tutorial with 8 students, then, the university's "income" from this is 80. Bearing in mind that I am paid 15 per tutorial hour, plus another 15 for one hour of preparation, there seems to be some leeway in the system either for paying me more or, more reasonably, for saying that teaching-only staff are a more efficient way of funding small group contact time. This is because unlike a full time staff member, I am not split between research, administration, and teaching. Because we cannot measure quite how much research informs any given contact hour, the fact that I am paid purely to teach establishes a more direct correlation between the tuition fee that the student spends on the contact hour and the salary for the teacher to be there. In fact, on my current "salary," given the number of contact hours taken by one student, I could cover every tutorial contact hour across every module for a group of eight students each year, for the cost of the tuition fee for just one student.

There is, surely, capacity for universities to maintain small group contact hours, if these are staffed more by teaching-only staff or, more controversially, by postgraduates. Of course, this may mean that teaching quality suffers (though I would beg to suggest that I am just as good a teacher as a full time academic), and will also cause a split between junior staff who teach, and full time faculty devoted to research. This is pretty much already the case in the United States, and modelling the relationship between tuition fees and contact hours confirms that this is the direction the UK would be heading in with increased tuition fees. This, of course, will compromise the aim of the Higher Education Academy - the professional body supporting university teaching - that its members should ensure that their teaching is led by research, which is precisely what differentiates a university education from earlier stages of teaching and learning. This would also prompt students to ask why their higher fees are justified in relation to teaching quality, if their contact is with early career teaching staff rather than with the established academics who usually grace prospectuses.

This issue offers one example of the way in which, although the concept of the contact hour may be a crude measure of the value and quality of a university education, it is necessary to provide some quantitative figures for the cost of the contact hour, in order to realise the more qualitative impacts on the nature of Higher Education that will be a consequence of higher tuition fees. In deciding on their universities, prospective students might well want to decide whether to opt for a university which offers more contact with junior academics but in small group formats, and a university which offers less or large group contact on research-led courses taught by senior professors.

Finally, there is one other aspect of the calculator which is worth exploring, albeit with a great deal of caution. This tests the impact of charging a more substantial interest rate on student loans than the inflation-linked rate which currently applies. The Universities UK report assumes that students would react only to an increase in up-front tuition fees, and would not be concerned with repayment rates. However, doing the sums for a loan of 21 000, taken out to cover the cost of three years tuition fees at 7000, with a 5% interest rate and repaid at the rate of 9% on any salary over 15 000 (the current repayment threshold), shows that it would take 25 years to repay on a salary of 25 000 per year. The net amount repaid just for direct teaching (not infrastructure) would be around 17 000 per year. Currently, the fact that the student loan is linked to inflation is not really publicised to students in advance. The assumption on the current model is that earnings will rise in line with inflation, so that the real-terms cost of the loan will not increase. However, this relies on the bold assumption that immediately on graduation a student will enter a job that pays sufficiently above the 15 000 threshold to allow them to repay not only the interest on the loan, but the capital as well. As someone who left university with a relatively small loan of 9000, which has now ballooned to 13 000 because of my unpaid postgraduate study years, the interest rate certainly should be taken into account even now. However, with the higher effective tuition cost resulting from a commercial interest rate as modelled above, any potential student ought to be very much interested in just how much they will be paying for their education even post-university, and therefore much more demanding about the style, amount and quality of teaching offered whilst there.

Such a student might naturally decide which course to take not on the basis of their personal interests, but on the opportunities for well paid employment afterwards. The economically-minded might say that this will mean tuition fees have performed their function of driving students towards the degrees most relevant to commerce, especially STEM degrees. But such a vision will change the landscape and nature of university - indeed, the very word university would perhaps become a false description of the narrower range of courses offered by institutions and their students. Similarly, one would note that such loans would effectively disenfranchise mature students, preventing them from entering university mid-career, because they would lack the years of earning potential required to pay back their loans.

Conclusions

In reading all of the above, it should be remembered that I am not an expert in this field, only an interested party. I do not want to pretend to have any absolute authority on the subject, nor would I suggest that the calculator I have developed is ideal. Indeed, I have deliberately avoided giving full references throughout this essay (only hyperlinks), precisely to avoid giving the impression that it is scholastically rigorous, although I have done my best to be so within my limited domain of expertise. I am sure that many of my assumptions could be challenged; that the calculator itself is unreliable as anything other than a rough guide; and that the relationship between tuition fees and contact hours is more complex than I have credited here, and should be considered within the context of Higher Education as a whole, involving teaching, research, economic links, and government ambitions.

Nevertheless, I hope that the calculator will prove to be of some use in indicating where tuition fees are spent, and showing more clearly how they impact upon teaching styles (lectures, seminars, tutorials). I would also be interested to hear students' "on the ground" findings and feelings about how tuition fees are reflected in contact hours for their particular courses. The calculator is licensed under Creative Commons, and I would invite anyone to try to improve and develop it, especially as the debate about Higher Education funding is pushed on by the Browne review, and especially as commercial interest rates might impact upon tuition, and tie in to expected salaries for different subject graduates.

At this early stage in the debate, however, there are five few firm conclusions that I am prepared to make on the basis of the calculator as it stands, and my limited knowledge of the sector.

  1. HESA data, especially that regarding the proportion of funding which goes on infrastructure as against direct teaching costs, should be freely available online. Given that universities continually bemoan the administrative burden placed upon them to produce these datasets, it seems absurd that the only way in which the public can feasibly access them is through the "league tables" published annually by major newspapers, such as The Times and The Guardian, and by The Good University Guide, for example. Whilst such publications undoubtedly do a service to prospective students, one has to ask why the original HESA statistics are effectively locked away, only to be made widely available through commercial organisations. Commercial bodies have a vital role to play in amalgamating different data sets - for example, compiling HESA data with National Student Survey results - or in presenting data in different ways. Rather than raw data, for example, The Guardian scores each criteria out of ten, giving a different weighting to institutions such as collegiate universities, which have unusually high infrastructure and facilities spending. There is hence room both for HESA data to be made freely available to the public, without this curtailing the freedom of choice provided by commercial publications.
  2. Clear information about the precise amount and type of contact hours should be made available to students up front. I have already explained why the contact hour is an unfair measure of the time spent on teaching because it does not take into account preparation and subsidiary teaching support activities; I have also made clear that the quality or value of the university educational experience as a whole, which may not involve direct staff contact, is not reflected by the pure measure of contact hours. Indeed, students themselves seem well aware that university is about learning independently and involving themselves with extra-curricular activities, and that a good education is not necessarily predicated upon the sort of spoon-feeding as happens earlier in education. Nevertheless, since universities and government have demanded that Higher Education be driven by market logic, the same logic demands visible, quantitative measures of the relationship between consumer spending (i.e. tuition fees spent by students) and services (i.e. infrastructure and teaching time). Since so much of the university experience is not quantifiable, students deserve to have clear information about the one area that is. Their daily attendance at lectures and seminars provides their clearest measure of what they are getting from their money, and it is precisely because of this that I wanted to make the calculator accessible to current students. As my tentatively worked examples show, the English student living with a higher fees future ought well to challenge their university if that fee does not get spent on providing quality tuition contact time but instead goes on - to them - decreasingly relevant infrastructure. This is also important when students are deciding on a university. For example, is it better value to go to a university which offers more contact but with in large-scale formats such as lectures, or is it preferable to choose a university which provides less teaching, but in smaller groups? Neither current league tables, nor university prospectuses, provide sufficiently clear details about the amount and type of contact time to answer this question.
  3. With tuition fees at their current level, it would not be surprising if universities shift from small to large group teaching. Although I would argue the general case that Higher Education should be free and well-funded by government, if Higher Education is to be paid for by students rather than the state, tuition fees of 7000 are, it seems, justifiable on the basis of contact hours both for smaller and intensive group teaching as common in the arts, and for science based courses which have much lecture based teaching.
  4. There needs to be more evaluation of the quality of small as opposed to large group teaching, in order to justify the seminar driven or tutorial supported methods that could continue, if higher fees are introduced. If - as all my experience suggests is the case - small group teaching is of better quality than larger methods, then the provision of this could be one way in which universities differentiate themselves, or justify relatively higher or lower tuition fees.
  5. Too often the debate is focused on what the Higher Education sector wants or what the national economy needs, rather than seeing things from the student point of view. As I noted earlier, the basic tuition fee contribution per contact hour is only what the student pays, not what it necessarily costs the university, which may require government subsidies and other forms of income to fully fund that contact time. However, from the student's point of view, it is only what they pay for and what they receive back that matters to them. In my time teaching, I have had students complain to me about essays that have taken two months for a tutor to mark; about essays returned with just the words "Well done" on the bottom; about exams that they have sat but on which they are not able to receive feedback; about personal issues that were affecting their academic work that have been brushed aside by academic staff; about trying to work through a dissertation but being supervised by several different tutors, rather than having one point of contact throughout the process; about books that they have been told to read on a course, but of which there are only two or three copies in the library. None of these issues are to do with staff who cannot be bothered or who see students as a problem. Rather, they result from staff who are overworked and pushed to do teaching, administration and research simultaneously. Yet, to put it bluntly, this should not be the student's problem. Tuition fees and student loans hurt - especially for students who do not walk into well paid jobs upon graduation - and will hurt increasingly with higher fees and commercial rates of interest on loans. The question then has to be whether, given clearer information about where their tuition fees are spent, and how much they contribute towards contact time, students are justified in expecting staff to be more responsive to their needs, and consequently whether institutions have a responsibility to free up staff time and resources in order to satisfy their student-consumers. To that end, I hope that this calculator will inform the debate about tuition fees from the student point of view, and that it will show students whether they should question or respect their institutions, staff and tuition fee costs, even if the contact hour is too simplistic a notion to offer the complete picture of the complex relationship between these elements.

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This page was published on December 16, 2009 | Keywords: tuition fees, undergraduate, university, contacthours

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