Spotlight on university contact time

7 August 2012

The National Union of Students (NUS) is warning that a government initiative compelling universities to publish information about course ‘contact time’ may be missing the point.

From September, all universities in England and Wales will have to publish so-called Key Information Sets (KIS) for all of their undergraduate courses to help prospective students make “informed decisions about what and where to study”. The KIS data will include information about ‘contact hours’ , as well as data on student satisfaction, costs, and employability.

However, NUS vice-president Rachel Wenstone doubts whether this really gets to the heart of the matter. Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, she said: “Contact hours don’t meant a thing unless they are high quality, and you have a real relationship with your tutors.”

Wenstone claims: “Students have long expressed concerns about the amount of contact time they get and the manner in which this occurs, and this needs to be addressed.” However, the NUS argues that time spent with tutors in smaller groups is of the greatest value, and is calling for greater transparency over the number and size of seminars and tutorials, especially as government cuts to teaching budgets begin to bite.

“Raising fees whilst withdrawing over 80 per cent of teaching funding means that universities will in most instances have no additional funds,” says Wenstone. “In fact, a large number of universities will have less money to spend on teaching, and so the problem for many will only get worse.”

The small-group supervision system has long been presented as one of the best aspects of the Cambridge learning experience. Imogen Schon, a first year History student and a trustee for Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), has only ever had one-on-one supervisions. She says “it gives the opportunity for the best possible education” and would implement it elsewhere. Fellow student Freya Evison enthusiastically notes that the personalised teaching has “inspired” her, not only to see university as “a progression towards a degree,” but also as “an individual academic journey to be cherished and enjoyed.”

Second year Historian Alice Cornes from Homerton notes that one-on-one supervisions “eradicate the awful competitiveness of wanting to be the better student in the room”. Similarly, Hannah Malcolm, a second year ASNaC student from Fitzwilliam would agree that one-on-one supervisions are “excellent,” but would have liked to be prepared for the “aggressive style of supervisor who pulls your essays apart week after week”. She notes improvement as a result of such a tough approach however.

Not all students share the same sentiments. Second year Natural Scientist Olympia Onelli prefers supervisions with larger groups as she feels somewhat “shy” during supervisions, while Nancy Zhao, also a second year Natural Scientist, claims that the only one-on-one supervision she has had at Cambridge was quite “stressful”, whereas the presence of a few students provides each person with the opportunity to speak up, and raise and answer questions.

There is also disagreement over the quality of course information provided by Cambridge to prospective students. Iona Edwards, a second year Law student from Murray Edwards, says she had a “relatively accurate idea as to the amount of supervision hours and workload” she would be facing when she arrived, and that the surprise for her was the pace of the course. Conversely, Sharon Li, a first year Natural Scientist, “had no idea” about the workload, and notes that her supervisions are “not as brilliant” as anticipated.

In an effort to provide more transparent information about universities to prospective applicants, NUS President Liam Burns announced last month that the NUS would be partnering with consumer group Which? to launch a new university website providing “free independent information” to prospective students. Launching later this year, the site aims to address the problem of universities unable to provide “impartial resources” to prospective students as “they are increasingly competing with each other in a market”, according to Burns.

Sarah Weidenmuller, News Reporter

Photo – Jimmy Appleton