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50 years on from Robbins, teaching needs to be given higher priority, minister urges

The pendulum between time spent on teaching and research has swung too far away from teaching  in England’s older universities, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, has warned.

In a pamphlet to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report that helped prompt expansion of student numbers from the 1960s, Mr Willetts says a new study has shown that academics working in universities that existed at the time of Robbins now devote just 40 per cent of their time to teaching and 60 per cent to research.

The level of attention given to teaching is less than 50 years ago, when it took up 55 per cent of academics time in the same institutions, the analysis of data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England found.

The study also underlined the stark contrast between older and newer universities, with those created after Robbins but before 1992 allocating 43 per cent of academics’ time to teaching, and post-1992 universities and FE colleges devoting 89 per cent to it.

In the pamphlet Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education, published by the Social Market Foundation, Mr Willetts argues that today “the pendulum has swung too far away from teaching”, particular with the advent of higher tuition fees.

Another concern is that half of students feel they need more interactive teaching sessions, such as seminar groups, as highlighted in a survey conducted by the National Union of Students last year, Mr Willetts says. 

Students “do not care simply about teaching time. They care about having classes that involve them in a discussion – which stand to reason if we are to uphold the ideal of the university experience as one that teaches students to question and to think”, he adds.

The government is considering addressing this by requiring institutions to provide in Key Information Sets the average number of discussion classes for each course, broken down into tutorials, small seminars, and large seminars, the minister says.

The move would “make good teaching visible, providing a powerful incentive for institutions to continue to improve”.

Key Information Sets may also be used to address students’ continuing dissatisfaction with the level of feedback they receive, by mirroring information that was available 50 years ago. Institutions may be required to specify how many essays or how much work students can expected to have marked on each course, and whether feedback will be written or discussed.

Get the full picture from HEi-know: Briefing Report 104