Repositioning contact time to explain the value of education

I happened to mention that I worked in higher education to a women who sold me a vase in a craft shop; the sort of situation where I normally feel at ease with people I meet beyond the educational setting. I was somewhat shocked, therefore, that she came straight back at me with how disappointed she was with the lack of contact time her daughter had received on the degree she had just completed. I was clearly being asked to defend the poor amount of contact her daughter had received for her money.

First, to be clear, I will never defend the way the country now funds higher education. I do make the point, however, that you get what you vote for, whether that is Brexit or higher education. Privatising education of any sort never made sense to me – a society depends on its investment in people, but the dominant discourse is often that individuals are the sole beneficiary of their education and that education is a service that the ambitious in life should pay for. Without an educated population, I would argue, we have a poor society devoid of hope and possibility.

Because of my interest in spaces for learning and active learning, it did make me think about the need to develop a stronger, clearer alternative discourse about the value of a higher education experience. This keeps coming up for me, and is fundamental to my thinking on place, belonging and engagement.

I have been a participant in a symposium on learning spaces over the last couple of days and, again, I found myself caught up in a discussion that conflated learning and learner engagement. If trying to understand value for money or return on investment in relation to the development of learning space, it is essential to be clear about space and value. While I normally steer clear of binary discourse, it is useful in this case to separate the two. Let us say, then, that learning concerns the cognitive outcomes of personally constructing knowledge, while learner engagement describes how a student enacts their desire to achieve by developing high expectations of themselves and their longer-term retention of knowledge through time-on-task, imagination, reasoning and critical thinking. Learning, then, is about the ‘what and why’, and engagement focuses us on the environmental conditions and context of the ‘how’ – ideally, how the conditions foster the intrinsic motivation of the student as learner. Managers and impact-focused discourse tends to focus on the former, while pedagogues are more concerned with the latter. Both have their place.

My point in this post, is that managers and impact-focused discourse, need to understand their interest in the latter. It is not in fact a binary discourse!

Returning to the value of contact time and the value of a higher education, students and their families should ask, “What are we paying for?” I argue that the greatest value of a university education is not the degree you gain as a result of jumping through the structural hoops of a degree course, but the self-knowledge gained from the experience of sally engaging with worldly challenges. Whoever pays for the degree, the real value of a three year undergraduate degree is the experience of three years of self-engagement at a liminal moment in life; that is, a student’s critical ownership of their curriculum, co-curricula, and lifewide opportunities, and how the student comes to address and understand the challenges therein with the support of tutors, support staff, technicians, peers, friends, family, and colleagues or co-workers.

I am leading work on developing employability within the curriculum at Anglia Ruskin University. Employability is a difficult concept. For example, it is one that appears to be easily measured by monitoring the destination of leavers; albeit over a long time. However, there are other ways of understanding it. ARU, before I arrived, wisely identified Tomlinson’s concept of Graduate Capitals (2017) as the essential framework to support this work.

“Capitals are defined here as key resources that confer benefits and advantages onto graduates. These resources encompass a range of educational, social, cultural and psycho-social dimensions and are acquired through graduates’ formal and informal experiences.” (Tomlinson, 2017)

This is proving to be incredibly helpful because of its focus on the ideas of human, social, identity, psychological, cultural capitals, and their interrelation. These reflect the value of learner engagement with the space (experiences) afforded a student at university. Implicitly, the 5 Graduate Capitals Framework does not distinguish between the curriculum, co-curriculum or extra-curriculum, but recognises the value that a student creates for themselves, with the support of others, through their engagement with life while at university.

In conclusion, then, ‘contact time’ can be considered as a proxy for value, but not in the way that it is usually understood – the number of hours that a student is given access to their tutors. ‘Contact’, I think, is better understood as an opportunity afforded a student to engage with significant others including tutors, support staff, technicians, peers, friends, family, and colleagues or co-workers as a basis for self-reflection and self-direction.

This explains why place and learner agency, more than learning space (a conceived and managed delivery of facilities and services), are the agenda educators need to pay attention to. We need to understand how we can foster learner engagement and communicate to students the value of gaining experience while they take time in their lives to be a student. And how we communicate this value as an alternative discourse to that of ‘contact as service’ leading to the certification of knowledge. While the certificate may be the ticket to access careers, experience and personal capital are what will actually make life fulfilling.


Tomlinson, M. (2017). Forms of graduate capital and their relationship to graduate employability. Education + Training, 59(4), pp.338-352.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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