An implication in complaints about rising university student:staff ratios is that things are getting worse for students.
We don’t have any measures of student learning, the most important indicator, but we do have from the course experience questionnaire sent to all completing students a series of questions on satisfaction with teaching, which together form the ‘good teaching scale’ (GTS). These questions cover time spent commenting on work, helpfulness of feedback, whether students were motivated to do their best work, how good lecturers were at explaining things, whether lecturers worked hard to make their subjects interesting, and whether staff made an effort to understand difficulties students might be having.
Contrary to what we would expect if SSRs were a major teaching problem, all the GTS scores have improved steadily since 1997, though from a low base. In 1997 on average 39% of completing students gave a clearly satisfied rating to the teaching questions (ie the top two points on a five point scale). By 2009 this was up to 52%.
Curiously, the indicator most contingent on the extra staff time supposedly limited by higher SSRs, whether the ‘staff put a lot of time into commenting on my work’, has shown the most improvement 1997-2009. The two indicators have a very large positive correlation of 0.9 over the 1997-2008 period.
The old social science warning ‘correlation is not causation’ very much applies here. But the fact that trends that were supposed to be negatives are not showing as such is surely significant.
I’ve not seen any detailed analysis that attempts to explain these trends. But I very much doubt that it is coincidence that this is same time period in which universities became reliant on markets for their income. With students free to take their dollars somewhere else, teaching quality became a much bigger issue for universities