Proliferating metrics and rankings in recent decades have, for better or worse, reshaped the priorities of universities around the world. Despite this “metric tide”, Australian universities provide little reliable, publicly available data on their class sizes. To this day, there is no mechanism for reporting how many students are allocated to the various types of classes at universities in Australia.
The result is a clear lack of systematic evidence on how universities organise their teaching in terms of class sizes. We also don’t know for sure how this may have changed over the years.
3 reasons we need to know about class sizes
From a policy perspective, having reliable, publicly available data on Australian universities’ class sizes matters for a number of reasons.
First, class size metrics would provide prospective students with more meaningful information about a key aspect of their future learning experience.
University rankings such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities are mostly geared towards research performance. They provide little guidance on how universities value and approach their teaching.
Student-staff ratios are part of some rankings at least, but this information is similarly limited. These ratios do not provide accurate information on the actual sizes of the various classes students attend. They also generally do not distinguish between different fields of study.
All this means student-staff ratios are a limited source of information.
Second, class sizes could have impacts on students’ learning outcomes and levels of satisfaction.
Some studies suggest student outcomes get worse as classes at universities get larger. Other studies paint a more complex picture. These suggest the effect of increasing class size on students’ achievement differs substantially between academic disciplines. It also depends on the student demographics.
The picture of the relationship between class sizes and student satisfaction remains similarly inconclusive.
It is ultimately undeniable, however, that smaller classes provide students with better access to and more interaction with their lecturer or tutor. This is particularly important for tutorial classes, which are meant to enable high levels of interaction. It is reasonable to assume smaller tutorial classes make it easier to provide students with more detailed and targeted feedback.
Third, publishing reliable information on class sizes would eventually lead to better understanding of trends and their potential impacts on students’ learning experiences.
Ample anecdotal evidence suggests Australian universities’ class sizes have increased dramatically over recent decades. For example, tutorial class sizes of more than 35 students are not uncommon these days. Only a decade ago an upper limit of 20 students appears to have been the norm.
Unsurprisingly, these numbers are a long way from what tutorial classes looked like before mass higher education. A 2017 study has shown UK universities in the 1960s, for example, had tutorial classes of only about four students on average. The picture at Australian universities would probably not have been too different given the similarities of these two higher education systems.
How could class sizes be reported?
To make university class-size data usable for prospective students and other stakeholders, consistent reporting standards would need to be agreed. Any published class-size metrics should clearly distinguish different modes of delivery, such as online or face-to-face, and different levels of education, such as undergraduate or postgraduate.
Metrics should also reflect the variety of sessions students typically attend. These include lectures, seminars, tutorials, or lab classes. Information on class sizes is much more meaningful for group-based and highly interactive teaching activities such as tutorials than for less interactive activities such as lectures.
Logistically, collating class-size metrics should not be too onerous for universities. The information already exists in their learning management or business intelligence systems. The public reporting of data on class sizes could use existing mechanisms such as the annual Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT).
Overall, from a higher education policy perspective, publishing relevant class-size metrics would greatly enhance the transparency of Australian universities’ teaching offerings. It would provide students with meaningful information about what to expect at the university of their choice.
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