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Should number of contact hours be considered in TEF course quality rankings?

Do contact hours really equate to course quality? Source: Shutterstock

The TEF – or the Teaching Excellence Framework – is set to revolutionise university rankings in the UK by classifying universities as bronze, silver or gold status based on teaching quality, learning environment and graduate outcomes.

In the latest proposal, the TEF suggested rolling out the rankings to individual courses to help students differentiate between universities on a more meaningful level. This would see factors such as class sizes, number of contact hours, and seniority of staff included in the rankings.

This is envisaged to be a useful tool for international students who usually only have online university rankings to inform their study decision, but critics warn the subject proposal could produce misleading rankings which do not acknowledge different course structures or teaching styles.

The value of independent study isn’t accounted for in the new TEF plan. Source: Shutterstock

MillionPlus – the Association for Modern Universities in the UK – have disputed the proposal for judging institutions on class sizes and contact hours, as it “risks undermining institutional diversity,” in a written response to the suggestions.

“Given all the variables involved in an individual’s learning experience, suggesting a link between the size of a class, the number of hours, or the seniority of a teacher (to take 3 of the given options) with attainment and destination is highly problematic,” MillionPlus wrote.

MillionPlus notes that this way of judging academic quality fails to acknowledge the value of independent learning despite this being a valuable component of university-level education.

Universities will also be able to set differentiated fees based on their ranking, with gold standard universities being able to charge higher prices than their lower ranked bronze and silver competitors.

Samantha Shibou, a second-year student from France who is currently studying at the University of Sheffield, agrees that basing subject rankings on contact hours and class sizes would create misleading results for prospective students.

“Some courses naturally have more students and more contact hours than others,” Shibou told Study International.

“Science and economics usually have larger intakes and have more teaching time than other subjects because of the nature of the course.

“Humanities and languages are based more on independent study, but that doesn’t mean they’re not as high quality,” she said.

If the subject level ranking goes ahead as proposed, Shibou says there is a risk students will be deterred away from independent study-based degrees in favour of teaching-heavy degrees due to skewed rankings that value the wrong things.

Universities UK said in response to the proposal of teaching intensity as a measure of excellence: “There is genuine concern about whether such a measure can realistically capture all forms of teaching, the key role that independent study plays in higher education and the numerous unintended consequences it could create.”

The link between student satisfaction and the number of contact hours is still unclear, according to Universities UK. While the TEF is viewing it as a central marker of course quality, the influential 2010 report ‘Dimensions of Quality’ implies the amount of contact hours is not linked to students perception of teaching quality.

The aim of the TEF is to help prospective students make informed decisions about where to study and encourage institutions to provide the best possible education. By including the number of contact hours in these rankings, the TEF may risk wrongly classifying universities and misleading students.

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