Though amateur higher education statisticians are addicted to it, there is virtually no statistic less useful than the student-staff ratio. There are basically two reasons why this is the case.
The first is that not all students are alike. Some are full-time, some are part-time. This problem is reasonably easy to solve by creating a method for calculating full-time equivalency. But for this, the number of credit-hours students take must be transparent. The second is that not all professors are alike. This is a bigger issue, because it takes in two possible issues.
The first is that the definition of a “professor” is more fluid than most people realize. Everyone can agree to including full-time tenured or tenure-track professors. But what about adjuncts? Chargés de cours? Clinicians in teaching hospitals? Emeritus professors? When outside agencies come knocking for statistics from universities, universities will supply figures that depend on their use. If they want to emphasize how underfunded they are, they will use the smallest possible number; if they want to emphasize how great the student-professor ratio is, they will include all of the above. The number of professors on hand can shift considerably in the context of a single data request.
There’s a solution to this of course – schools can simply report many different categories of professors and allow users to use whichever combination of them they choose. Ontario universities, for instance, report about a half-dozen such figures to government for precisely this reason. But that only solves part of the problem. Because, just as not all students are in class for the same amount of time, not all profs spend the same amount of time in class, either.
The reason anybody cares about staff-student ratio is that it’s a proxy for class size. But if you have two universities with identical ratios, but at university A the expected course load is 4/4 and at university B its 2/2, you’re going to have radically different class sizes. Just counting bodies isn’t enough: you need to count hours in the class.
Here’s what institutions ought to do. They ought to publish the number of credit hours taken by students. And they ought to publish the number of class hours that each of the various types of professors (tenure-track, adjunct, etc.) has. If they could do this at the faculty level, so much the better. Then, by dividing the two sets of numbers, you’d get an actual average class size. Which, again, is what people actually care about.
Making this data available would vastly improve our understanding of classroom conditions. And at most institutions, it should not require any extra data collection – everything required should already be “in the system.”
So, to all our IR readers: how about it?