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Universities' student to staff ratios should come with a health warning

6 December 2012 | last updated: 11 December 2015

UK universities' student:staff ratios (SSRs) are inaccurate and should come with a health warning, argues a paper from UCU available today.

The SSR remains a significant measure, seen by universities - as well as those who accredit university courses, and compilers of league tables - as one of the key indicators of the quality of the student learning experience.

However, the paper argues that the measure is flawed, as it includes all the time of teaching-and-research academics as being spent on teaching, and not also on research, administration or other activities.

The SSR includes the full-time equivalent number of professors, senior lecturers, lecturers and other teachers in the calculation, without any weighting related to the proportion of their time spent on activities other than teaching. Full-time equivalent data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for academic staff in 2009-10 indicated that while 17,390 were teaching-only and 37,571 were research-only, the majority (83,066) were teaching-and-research academics.

While research-only academics are excluded from the SSR calculation, teaching-only and teaching-and-research academics are counted as spending all their time on teaching. The union argues that the current SSR is likely to give an inaccurate picture of the use of time by academic staff, because HESA data indicate that universities with low SSRs tend to be ones where academics spend a high proportion of their time on research.

The union warns that as student numbers have increased, universities must continue to invest in staff to maintain the quality of the student learning experience.

The paper highlights the varying proportions of time which are actually spent on teaching by teaching-and-research academics. The lowest average proportion of academic staff time spent on teaching was 23.7% at the research-intensive Russell Group universities (all of which have medical schools) excluding the London School of Economics, plus specialist medical schools. The highest was 58.4%, at teaching-focused institutions with a turnover of between £40m and £119m that traditionally undertake less research than the Russell Group institutions.

For the proportion of academic time spent on research, the opposite was true. Academics at teaching-focused universities in the £40-119m turnover group spent the smallest proportion of their time (7.9%) on research. This means that universities that come out best in the calculation of the SSR have academics spending a low proportion of their time directly on teaching. On the other hand, universities that do worst in the SSR calculation tend to have academics spending a large proportion of their time directly on teaching.

The paper warns that universities with low SSRs and academic staff with a low proportion of direct teaching activity need to make a greater investment in their teaching staffs to ensure that their SSR genuinely reflects the level of access to teachers. From the perspective of academic staff, the great increase in student numbers and the use of larger teaching groups has been a considerable source of occupational stress in higher education.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Student:staff ratios are used in league tables and other publications as an influential measure of how much access students think they will have to academic staff. SSRs potentially affect the decisions of thousands of students choosing courses costing up to £9,000 a year, as well as influencing the decisions of governments and accrediting bodies. Reduced SSRs have been used by universities as evidence of recent investment in the student experience. SSRs as they are currently calculated should come with a health warning.

'A low student:staff ratio gives the impression of high teacher availability at institutions where many academics may in fact be unavailable because of their extensive commitment to research activities. We strongly support the research role of UK academics, but we need a far more accurate way to measure teaching time in our universities. We must ensure staff are getting the support they need to cope with the recent increase in student numbers, as well as cuts to university funding.'

The paper - An analysis of student:staff ratios, the academics' use of time, and potential links with student satisfaction - considers a wealth of evidence relating to SSRs, measures how academics actually spend their time and asks if there is a correlation between the amount of teaching time and student satisfaction.

It will be presented by the union's senior research officer, Stephen Court, at the Society for Research into Higher Education's annual conference next week (Thursday 13 December).