Are student:staff ratios a useful university indicator?

Universities often complain about rising student:staff ratios. These rose from around 14:1 in 1990 to around 21:1 in 2007.* By contrast in schools student:staff ratios declined from 15.4:1 to 13.9 to 1.

But what does a student:staff ratio actually mean for teaching in a university context? In schools, a student:staff ratio of 14:1 will often mean just that – than in the average school, there are 14 students for every 1 member of the teaching staff.

In universities that isn’t the case. A student:staff ratio of 21:1 means 21 full-time equivalent students (EFTSL) to each full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching or teaching/research staff member. Due to part-time uni students, there are 1.4 persons for every EFTSL. But due to casualisation of university teaching staff, according to a report in the Higher Education Supplement one staff FTE could be 7 or 8 casuals (they represent about 20% of FTE teaching staff). So on a person to person basis, the university student:staff ratio is likely to be less than 21:1.

Another problem – at least in comparing SSRs with schools – is that classroom contact hours are much lower at universities than at schools. The latest survey of first-year uni students indicated an average of 15 hours per week, less than half of supervised school hours. Though contact hours vary a lot by faculty, on average after adjusting for different definitions of ‘full-time student’ the school SSR is more like 28:1 in terms of comparable classroom commitment in a teaching week.

Unlike school teachers, most full-time academics have research work to do as well. Surveys indicate that most prefer research to teaching. So aside from the number of hours theoretically available for teaching, there is a degree of choice in how academics use their time. To some extent, they can choose to spend their time on teaching of research. A change in SSRs won’t necessarily mean more or less time for teaching.

So at universities SSRs are at best a rough proxy for the staff resources that are potentially available for teaching. Other indicators such as actual numbers of students in classes, speed and quality of feedback, and student assesments of staff performance are likely to be better measures of staff resources and how they are being used.

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