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However you cost student contact time, it is very expensive. A crude estimate can be made by dividing tuition fees by contact hours – £9,000 for 300 hours’ contact comes to £30 an hour, which is probably on the conservative side.

At that price, a one-hour lecture to 100 students collectively costs £3,000 and a two-hour lecture for 200 grosses £12,000. To illustrate the absurdity of this, imagine if the students were charged £30 at the door: in most cases they would begrudge parting with a fiver. A seminar should be better value as you would expect to pay more for a more personal service. But even this is questionable if there are 20 students and they are asked to more or less run it themselves. Small group seminars or one-to-one tutorials offer better value for money.

Services and events that are similar to higher education offer interesting price comparisons. At literary and science festivals, I have attended talks by ex-Cabinet ministers, famous authors, Nobel prizewinners, heads of international companies, top-class sportspeople and so on. The presentations last an hour or so and the audience is seldom less than spellbound. The speakers get standing ovations and the events generally cost under a tenner.

In general, plays, operas, football matches, films and concerts cost under £30 an hour. The only time I have had to pay such a price was to see legends such as Bob Dylan, and that seemed steep!

Comparisons for small-group tutorials are less jarring: you would expect to pay a lot for a consultation with a top doctor or lawyer, so you could say the same for top academics. But you would expect them to treat you with the attention that the fee warranted, and you would not be pleased if the consultation turned out to involve a lower-paid trainee. Universities need to think about this in relation to their use of postgraduate teachers.

With the advent of higher fees, it is likely that student contact will come under greater scrutiny. Academia should look to match the standards and prices of similar services. Professional-level oratory should be expected. There may be openings for external speakers, perhaps even for groups to offer high-quality academic presentations and tour universities on the lines of theatre companies. At £30 a ticket, this would be good business.

John Linfoot
Additional learning support
Bournemouth University

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Whilst I agree with your reasoning your premise seems to be a little off. Surely if you are costing an hour of contact time @ £30.00 then the 1 hour lecture to 100 students would bring an INCOME of £3,000? Whilst you would indeed incur costs for putting on the lecture I'm not entirley sure what point you are trying to make whilst muddling up your costs and incomes?

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  • There's a fundamental problem with this approach.
    "Tuition Fees" do not pay for tuition only, but for the estate, the computers, the library, the learning support - what tends to be called "the student experience".

    Going to see a speaker at a science festival isn't quite the same as attending a course that involves not just the tutors but an enormous backroom staff and quite a lot else besides. Or are you suggesting all university courses should employ lecturers by the hour?

    Dividing £9,000 by 300 is an unhelpful way to think about "value for money", as is equating it to the cost of a movie or concert ticket. If I pay £10 to see a great movie, that's £10 well-spent. If the movie's rubbish, it was a waste.

    If you want a better service analogy, then think of a university like a gym. You pay your membership fee, but it doesn't make you fit. You have to go along, use the equipment, put in the effort. There are people there to help you, and fellow members can too. And there's a good social aspect if you want it. But results aren't dependent on the fee, nor on simply paying it. You get out of it what you put in.

    Unlike all the other examples you cite, going to university is not a passive experience. £9,000 buys you membership - it doesn't guarantee you a nice hour of sit-back-and-soak-it-in one-off erudition.

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