I’d like to to talk about tutorials, specifically about the very direct and very negative impact two recent policies have had on the quality of tutorials.  The first is the rationalisation of units and slashing of the casual budget.  The immediate result has been that enrollment in tutorials has ballooned.  In my school, tutorials that used to have 15 to 20 students now regularly reach 30.  The people who made these cuts are so remote from the classroom and from academia that they probably don’t realize that you cannot run an effective tutorial discussion with 25+ students.  The point of tutorials is for students to get an opportunity to articulate their own ideas, but under these new conditions, most students never even get a chance to speak.  What’s even more galling is that these cuts were wholly unnecessary, made while UWS has a massive surplus!
The second issue has to do with tutorial attendance.  Ironically, at the same time that the beancounters doubled the size of tutorials, they also took away our power to enforce attendance.  From what I understand, one of the many lawyers who run UWS Incorporated decided attendance was not “legally enforcable,” and so we the unit coordinators were informed attendance could no longer be mandated, only encouraged.  The unofficial solution for working around this disgraceful policy change has been to bluff.  Many colleagues have told me that when questioned by students about the consequences of not attending, they rely on ambiguous language, telling them, “it will be very difficult to pass the unit without attending.” At the start of term, as I tried to sort out how best to teach under these impossible conditions, I felt a bit like Odysseus as he navigated his ship through the straits of Scylla and Charybdis.  Should I steer towards Scylla the six-headed monster, and sacrifice only a few students to save the many?  Or should I steer closer to Charybdis and risk all the students in all my tutorials?
Like Odysseus, I opted for the former then ducked.  What I decided to do exactly was tell my students the truth about attendance.  My thinking was this might sacrifice a few absentees to the six-headed monster of apathy, but at least for those who did attend, their educational experience would be markedly better.   And so at week 1 of term, I went in and admitted I had no power to enforce attendance.  Attendance, I told them, was 100% voluntary and would have zero bearing on their final mark.   I added, however, that if they cared about their education enough to attend anyway, that participation would be mandatory.  Starting week 2, I then enforced participation simply by calling on students at random to ask their thoughts on the readings.  And so what was the result of my Odyssean bargain midway through term?
By week 3, tutorials with an average size of 25 – 30 students had an average of 8 students attending each week.  Appalling I know, but that is the REALITY of teaching at UWS.  We face an even more massive hurdle of student apathy than I myself realized.  To deal with this problem effectively, what we need is more autonomy and more funding, not more policy.  I feel strange saying this to university managers but I will: people, you need to quit meddling in affairs you clearly don’t understand. Stick to your marketing and your corporate nonsense and leave the teaching and learning experience to the academics!
– Dr Lonelytutes