Universities: Are tutors really any good?

A national survey gives students the chance to pass judgement on their lecturers' teaching. The results have given some universities a shock, writes Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online

So she is surprised to learn that 80 per cent of students are satisfied with the quality of their courses, according to the first national survey of student satisfaction.

"I definitely disagree that my lecturers make the subject interesting," she says. "And the tutors' marking is all over the place. You can do really well in one essay and really badly in another. One academic will like your writing style and another will hate it."

There is more in a similar vein - it takes some tutors up to a month and a half to turn round an essay, there is very little contact with academics and it is difficult to get in touch with them when you need to.

Moreover, the timetable doesn't work efficiently, there are frequent course clashes in combined degrees and students are not told where their classes are. In exam time, it is difficult to find a seat in the library unless you get there at eight in the morning.

Florence's views reflect anecdotal information one hears sometimes from undergraduates, but universities can point to the new survey of more than 170,000 students as evidence that most students are satisfied.

"Students, when asked in the privacy of their rooms, do seem to rate their experience very highly," says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. "It is puzzling because this flies in the face of what you hear from undergraduates whom you know. But provision of such information has to be a good thing."

Would-be students will now be able to access the Teaching Quality Information website, to find out how undergraduates rate their courses for teaching, assessment and feedback, academic support, organisation and learning resources. If you want to study maths at Leeds, psychology at Sheffield or art and design at the University of the Arts London, you will be able to see how final-year students at these places on these courses rate them.

Students answer questions such as whether the staff are good at explaining things, whether they make the subject interesting, whether the marking is fair and the feedback prompt and whether the course is well organised. Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, believes that such information could force unpopular courses to close if they do not improve.

"This mechanism, over time, will identify those courses, those institutions, who are not coming up to scratch and students will vote with their feet," he said. "This will provide a powerful tool for those courses and institutions to improve or to cease to function."

Newspapers have already drawn up league tables showing the best and worst universities based on the final question asked of students in the sample: overall, are you satisfied with the quality of the course?

The results may surprise people who expect the most prestigious, Russell Group universities to be at the top. That is not the case. Top is the Open University, the distance-learning institution established by the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to give part-time adult learners a second chance.

That should be no surprise. Its learning materials are superb and it has had 35 years to hone its expertise in supporting those learning from home. Moreover, it has always charged fees, so it has had to be responsive to its students, and it attracts mainly highly-motivated grown-ups whose expectations are more in line with the real world. Another institution taking adult learners that has done well is Birkbeck College in London.

Otherwise the colleges and universities that students rate most highly are small, specialist institutions such as the Royal Academy of Music in London and St Mary's University College in Belfast.

Ironically, those at the top of the table tend to do worse on measures such as attracting state school students. The two conventional universities to do best are Leicester and Loughborough, which don't usually appear at the top of university league tables.

Professor Bob Burgess, Leicester's vice chancellor, was cock-a-hoop. " It is vitally important that those who use our services, be they students, research bodies, business and industry, conference delegates or visitors receive a first-class service from the University of Leicester," he said. The university was delighted that two of its departments, economics and mass communications, were rated joint top in the country.

More than two-thirds of Leicester's subjects featured in the top 10 nationally, including politics (joint second), physical sciences (joint third), and law, medicine and psychology (joint seventh).

The highest scoring Russell Group university was UCL in London, ranked 14th. Scottish institutions were not included and only courses with a 50 per cent student response rate were recorded.

Some subjects performed better than others. The most popular courses were philosophy, theology and religious studies; the least popular were art and design. Art colleges fared particularly badly and many are concentrated in the bottom 20.

The wooden spoon goes to the University of the Arts London, the art and design institution which includes the London College of Fashion, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Chelsea Art College.

"Clearly we need to take seriously what students are saying and we will, " said Sir Michael Bichard, rector of the University of the Arts London. "Art colleges employ a large number of part-time staff. Is this an issue?"

He pointed out that the result did not tally with the feedback the university receives from its students and that the figures cover only art and design courses, which got a 50 per cent response rate. Moreover, art students are more iconoclastic than others, and perhaps more inclined to complain.

Professor Vaughn Grylls, principal of the Kent Institute of Art and Design, agreed. "Art students are more independent-minded than others and are encouraged to think for themselves," he said.

'The teaching varies'

Rebecca Diski is in her second year of a history degree at Nottingham

The quality of teaching is quite mixed. It depends on the staff. My personal tutor who takes me for two modules - in medieval history and historiography - is brilliant and makes my course worthwhile and interesting.

I have a great relationship with him. He is very good at explaining things and is really interested in us as people, which is rare. My main complaint about the academics is that they seem to be there to do research and are quite blatantly uninterested in teaching. We get prompt feedback on our work but the library is not good enough. For some topics there will be one book for 800 people. Sometimes you have to change your essay topic as a result.

Josh Rowlands is in his final year of a degree in chemistry at Bristol University

The teaching varies from one member of staff to another. It's hard to generalise about whether it's good. On the whole, the academics do make an effort. But it's important as a student to make an effort too, otherwise you can be ignored.

The more questions you ask, the more you get out of it. Tutors talk to people who participate in class. Some of them are open to talking to you out of class. If you don't understand something you can arrange extra tutorials. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.