Stuffing the Classrooms

In trawling through the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings list published recently, I found that of the ten universities in the English-speaking world with the highest student-staff ratios, seven are Australian. This suggests that recruitment has not kept pace with the growth in student numbers in the era of the ‘massification’ of higher education.

Indeed if one looks only at universities in Australia and the UK universities, nine of the ten highest student/staff ratios are Australian universities. Only the Open University, with its mass distance-learning model, makes the list, despite the fact that Britain has more than double the number of universities. The same ratio applies when measuring overall student numbers. Again only the Open University makes the top ten. While numerous Australian universities enrol more than thirty thousand full-time equivalent students in the UK only Nottingham and Open Universities do so.

But there are two questions arising from these figures. Firstly, in the digital era does student/staff ratio matter anymore? The advocates of the Fordist mass university argue that ‘online delivery’ – a sort of FedEx pedagogy – permits growth virtually without limits. When released from the constraints of geography/propinquity, when the ‘catchment area’ is global, then there is no limit to a university’s potential size. Teaching can be performed remotely and universities can hire where labour is cheap: how long before tutorials are taken by scholars working long hours in electronic sweatshops in the developing world?

But the tide is turning against Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and especially the idea that a virtual tutor is a reasonable substitute for the face-to-face version. Completion rates are astonishingly low among those enrolled in MOOCS, and institutions who have embrace them too enthusiastically – like the University of Phoenix – have got themselves into trouble.

Students appear to prefer face-to-face. However good the technology, it still does not allow for the pedagogical nuance. Much more can be achieved when you are eyeballing someone in the same room than if you are dealing with them on a screen.

It is far too easy to be distracted at each end of a Skype call: by things that spring up on the screen in other applications, or because being at home or in a cafe is a very different cultural space to the classroom, in which for many it is harder to concentrate and apply yourself. So notwithstanding the technological fantasies of the economic liberals amongst university managers, it would seem there are cultural constraints on the potential of MOOCS as there are on the operation of any market.

The second question about the student/ staff ratios listed by the THES concerns the method used to calculate them. This can be illustrated by looking at the two largest university by undergraduate enrolment in Australia: University of Sydney and Monash University. The former is listed as having 40 staff to each student while the latter has exactly half that. Given that Monash, is one of Australia’s wealthier institutions, it would seem strange that it has such a high ratio. The THES lists Curtin University, a relatively poor university, as having a 17: 1 ratio.

There is a clear inconsistency here and this apparently comes down to the way casual staff are accounted for in calculating student staff ratios. How many hours labour by casual staff are said to make up a ‘full-time equivalent’ seems to vary from institution to institution.

At the moment the Higher Education Standards Panel, headed by Professor Peter Shergold is looking at whether university admission standards could be more transparent, cutting through the tangle of discounts and bonuses that make the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank levels meaningless. Perhaps the same body should recommend that universities present a more standardised statement of student/staff ratios and make clear how much of the teaching is being performed by those paid by the hour.

There is a good reason for this. Unlike full-time staff, casuals are usually not paid to be available to students outside the hours in which they teach. So, whatever their teaching skills – and there are many highly-skilled and experienced academics working on casual contracts – undergraduates are unlikely to receive the same attention from someone employed on this basis as from someone employed in less precarious ways.

Such information is likely to be important to many of those making choices about where to enrol and if potential students reject those institutions where most of the teaching is done by those working on a sessional basis, perhaps universities will think twice about increasingly the level of casualization – now accounting for around half of taught hours. We can only hope

George Morgan