Higher Education: Confusing maps from a geographical survey: Larger classes, fears of declining quality - but more students gaining good degrees. Maureen O'Connor reports on an academic paradox

Staff have a gut feeling of a strong decline in student learning, but we have no hard evidence in results.' So said the head of a university geography department when approached by researchers Alan Jenkins and Pete Smith of Oxford Brookes University.

They were trying to find what effect the switch from an 'elite' to a mass system of higher education has had on quality and efficiency. What emerged was a paradox: widespread belief that quality had suffered, but an increase in the proportion of students gaining good degrees.

There have certainly been widespread complaints from students and lecturers. The study confirms that far more students have been packed into the universities and colleges and that there is a pervasive feeling among academics of loss of quality as lecture and seminar groups have become larger and more overcrowded and tutorials have ceased to be one-to-one sessions.

In fact, the apocryphal 10 to one tutorial is apocryphal no more. Jenkins and Smith found hard evidence that higher education geography lectures now accommodate on average 95 students, a third more than in 1956, seminars average 24 students and tutorials 10 in the first year. For third-year students tutorials of five to one are standard.

In geography departments between 1956 and 1991, Jenkins and Smith found that the pace and extent of change had been dramatic. Geography staff-student ratios had worsened from 12.1:1 to 17.4:1. The 'old' universities, at 15:1, had come down to where the former polytechnics stood, while the polytechnics worsened still further to 20.6:1.

Qualitatively, the survey uncovered a pervasive sense of the loss of something significant. As one head of department put it: 'Whether things are worse depends to a large extent on one's view. If cost-effectiveness, efficiency and more productivity are the goals, then we are achieving. If it is to be scholarly, read a good deal, reflect, then we are failing, or at least not doing as well as we were.'

Regarding the effect on students, the dominant problems the academics mentioned were in providing the levels of laboratory, practical and fieldwork experience they believed students needed. Seminars and practicals had to be repeated to cope with the increased numbers, and some departments reported cuts in residential fieldwork courses because of financial and logistical difficulties.

Students, some argued, might be less aware of the problems imposed by rising numbers because of huge efforts by staff to maintain standards, but at the cost of 'an increase in teaching and examining, diversion of time from research, fatigue, frustration and reduced morale'.

But there were frequent reports of students having difficulty in getting hold of key books in libraries, of loss of individual contact, and of physically overcrowded rooms. And where academics might be responsible for supervising five dissertations in the mid-Eighties, now they would have to handle 12.

The most optimistic interpretation of a period of rapid expansion came from a minority of departments which emphasised that innovations in teaching methods were enabling them to maintain quality. Among the strategies being developed to deal with larger classes were the greater use of group work and project work, the elimination of options that attracted few students, and the revision of assessment systems to include multiple-choice and self- and peer-assessment.

As one polytechnic head of department put it: 'We have moved to student-centred learning, having switched from 'chalk and talk' towards self-learning. On the whole, our adjustments have been successful and we feel that we have been able to maintain standards and give students a worthwhile and beneficial educational experience.'

Yet while most geographers confirmed the more common academic view that things were getting worse, few reported a decline in degree results and many emphasised that they had actually improved. Most felt it was either too early to judge or that student standards and degree results were actually rising.

Only five of the 55 departments which responded to the survey thought degree results had suffered, a response that fits in with the national picture. The proportion of first class and upper second class degrees awarded in 1991 was 2 per cent higher than the previous year.

So what is going on? Jenkins and Smith offer no definitive answers but several ideas they think should be investigated. Departments might, they suggest, simply have adjusted their standards to recognise what is practical. Academics might not even recognise they are doing this, particularly if they are using a norm-referenced system in which they expect a certain proportion of students to reach each level of degree classification each year.

External factors might also be pushing results up. Increasing competition between institutions and attempts to boost marks in the humanities subjects, which have traditionally gained lower degree classifications than the sciences, could be having an effect.

Or it might be that, whatever academics think about the quality of teaching they provide, it actually has little impact on what students actually learn. Or it could be that students joining degree courses have improved in quality, either in terms of their prior knowledge or in their skills as learners. Whatever the answer, it inevitably requires more research.

'Expansion, efficiency and teaching quality: the experience of British geography departments 1986-91'.

(Photograph omitted)