Bruce Charlton: Why are lecture sizes kept secret?

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The Independent Online

I work at one of the top 20 UK universities, with a reputation for good teaching. Yet in eight years my final-year class size has quadrupled from 16 to sixty-something.

I work at one of the top 20 UK universities, with a reputation for good teaching. Yet in eight years my final-year class size has quadrupled from 16 to sixty-something. Is this typical? Anecdotally, yes. In the past, introductory lectures were big, but as students progressed groups became smaller. Now I hear that students at good universities may spend all three years in classes of more than 100. Indeed, this may be the tip of an iceberg. If universities are to make a profit, class sizes will probably need to be larger still.

But the really remarkable fact is that no one knows what's going on, because information on university class sizes is not collected. Although the national university "teaching inspectorate", the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), examines a great deal of paperwork, and indirectly generates vastly more, it neglects the single most important measure of teaching quality.

It is no mystery why class sizes have expanded. Over 25 years, funding per student has declined by more than half, and the average number of students per member of staff increased from 8 to 18. In the face of long-term cuts, a decline in teaching quality was inevitable. Indeed, it was anticipated: the QAA was created in order to monitor and control this decline.

But is class size important? Of course it is. A wide range of evidence suggests that the public regard class size as the single most significant measure of teaching quality. Every parent with a child at school knows their class size. Those parents who pay for their children to attend private schools are often explicitly paying for smaller classes.

And it is not just in schools that size matters. US universities publish class size statistics that are closely scrutinised by applicants. A way of measuring their importance is to see what people are prepared to pay. In a study comparing public and private universities in America, we found that students at the private institutions paid on average 80 per cent more in tuition fees, for which they got 80 per cent more time in small classes. More than 70 per cent of classes at top universities such as Harvard and Princeton have groups of fewer than 20. The expensive and prestigious undergraduate liberal arts colleges (such as Amherst, Swarthmore and Hillary Clinton's Alma Mater, Wellesley) offer not only small classes, but classes that are always taught by professors.

Given the usefulness of a valid and objective measure of university teaching quality, and the overwhelming evidence of public demand for small classes, the case for publishing national data on class sizes seems unanswerable. The extraordinary thing is that this is already available in many UK universities, because they record the number of students registered for each course for their own internal administrative purposes. It is just a matter of collecting the information. However, I doubt that universities will publish this data unless they are made to do so. University bosses probably feel too embarrassed to admit the real situation: nobody wants to be first above the parapet with shocking statistics.

But why isn't the QAA interested in class sizes? I can't think of a good reason. It has spent £53m in data collection and auditing since it was set up but has failed to provide a valid measure of teaching quality. Incompetence and inefficiency on this scale beggars belief.

When the public becomes able to choose between universities on the basis of class sizes, those institutions that teach their students in small groups for most of the time will become known and acknowledged. Such genuinely "high teaching quality" universities can expect to be rewarded by greater student demand. And if in future fees are deregulated, as seems probable, they will be well-placed to charge more in return for providing a better service.

In response to this state of affairs, I have decided to boycott the forthcoming visitation from the QAA inspectors. My hope is that those universities who make the organisational effort and financial sacrifices needed to teach small classes will at last get the proper recognition they deserve.

The writer is Reader in evolutionary psychiatry at the University of Newcastle