Your views: Oxbridge tutorials: are they worth it?

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The Independent Online
Letters this week include an idea that Oxbridge tutorials could be reined in, diametrically opposed views to university department self assessment and a plea for educational research to be done in the real world.

tutorials in focus

Lucy Hodges' article ("Is this the end for the glory days of Oxford and Cambridge?" Education+ 18 September) raised the question of whether Oxford and Cambridge colleges deserve extra public funding compared to other British universities. This is a matter which, despite its complexities, deserves the public debate many are anxious to avoid. In particular, the common argument that the Oxbridge tutorial system amounts to "superior teaching", in the phrase attributed to the Warden of Wadham, should be critically examined.

As a product of this system myself, and as someone who has participated in a range of different teaching systems over the last 30 years, I can say that tutorials work well if you have access (as I did) to first-rate and dedicated staff. But not all students are so fortunate. Tutors become bored by teaching the same subject for up to 10 hours a week, and a surprising number lack the human skills necessary for good one-to-one discussion. Others are far more enthused by research or other outside activities.

Even where one-to-one tutorials work well, there is a strong case on both pedagogical and financial grounds for using them as a supplementary rather than primary form of teaching. Students benefit intellectually from working in small groups, and the experience also helps them develop as people. Badly needed research time would be freed for talented staff currently too tied to undergraduate teaching.

Oxford and Cambridge could move to a lecture-plus-class system, supplemented by, say, one hourly tutorial a fortnight to help the student pull ideas and course themes together. This would save the colleges, and by extension the taxpayer, a great deal of money.

Professor Christopher Hill

Department of International Relations

London School of Economics

quality control

From the perspective of a North American academic, the "alarm" expressed at the prospect of the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and their constituent colleges losing their privileged public-funding status (The Independent, Education supplement, 18 September) seems quite unwarranted. The Warden of Wadham College assures us that the two universities offer "superior teaching" and the MP for Oxford tells us that "employees want to recruit graduates" from the tutorial system. Given the correctness of these assertions, which I have no reason to doubt, there certainly will be a very ample supply of students in the future who will be quite willing to take on an additional pounds 6,000 "graduate tax" for the lifetime advantages afforded them by being entitled to inscribe Oxon or Cantab on their CVs. Have confidence in your product, you Dons "on the edge of the precipice"; in education as elsewhere the customer recognises and rewards quality.

Professor CE Lunneborg London

Assessment evaluation

I am replying to Professor Weitzman's extraordinary letter (Your View, Education+, 18 September).

Professor Weitzman must be an extremely naive and trusting person. His self-satisfaction, produced by all those people he is employed to judge assuring him what a wonderful process he is involved in, is quite breathtaking. Professor Weitzman: these people were lying to you. I have just finished writing a self-assessment document and I can assure him that if I met him on the train I would have mouthed words about how valuable the exercise had been. I would have been lying, too. I know of no one who has been involved on the receiving end of one of these exercises (and I know lots) who doesn't regard the whole affair as a farce. This is a paper-generating exercise for the bureaucrats. It has nothing to do with real quality at all.

Professor Weitzman's assurance that departments don't put on a show for the assessors is quite amazingly naive. He asserts that as they probe back all of three years any show is easily seen through. What planet does he live on? Just one example (out of many I could give) to give the lie to his words: a departmental head was asked if the assessors could meet his department's Quality Panel. They didn't have one so he rounded up the three academics he found in their offices and immediately constituted a panel.

The assessors gave his department extremely high marks.

No one can argue against the need to raise standards, but this Teaching Quality Assessment is most certainly the wrong way to do it. The correct way would be to pay academics a decent wage, resource their departments properly and make sure the best people of each generation want to become university teachers.

Name and address supplied

As a university lecturer with 30 years of experience, in a Department recently visited by HEFCE teaching quality assessors, I disagree strongly with Geoffrey Alderman's article ("Time to end the farce", 18 September).

His account of inspection visits is a caricature. It is not possible to "set yourself easy aims and objectives" since they may be - and sometimes are - sent back for rewriting. "Transferable skills" are important, not just a "buzz-word". The idea that staff and students, throughout a visit and hours of observation and discussion, can enact a special "show" is absurd and offensive to all those concerned. Much of a visit is spent checking that the week was not just an arranged display vehicle.

My own experience is that with visits looming my university took teacher training and student care seriously for the first time in decades, with very helpful results. I have a daughter recently graduated from a department which displayed scant support for students and was profoundly disorganised. With a visit due it is taking major steps to redress the situation.

A system of informed external assessment is vital to prevent staff from retreating into research and refusing to think about teaching. No doubt it would be convenient for Professor Alderman and fellow Pro-Vice-Chancellors to get back to a cosy internal audit where Smith from History approves Jones from Chemistry and vice versa, but it would be a huge step backwards.

Michael Green

Senior lecturer

practical approach

What a wonderful article by Professor Alan Smithers in the education section of your Thursday's edition (View From Here, Education+, 18 September). He admirably highlights the conflict between a university's self-indulgent "academic" research and the real and the practical problems that exist in our education system. The very real problems in our education system must take precedence, with great urgency.

Intellectual fashions and prejudices are to be abhorred. But fashions and prejudices exist, always have existed and always will exist, especially in our university departments. The problem is that these fashions need to be subjected to critical debate in the hope that through open critical debate ideas may (or may not) be modified for the better.

Dr Ivan Slade

Hadley Wood, Hertfordshire