The findings of HEPI’s most recent survey of the student academic experience, this year carried out jointly with Which? and published on Wednesday 15 May 2013, show that nothing much has changed in respect of things like the number of contact hours that students receive and the size of their teaching groups since the first survey HEPI conducted in 2006 when fees were still £1,000 per year.  Our intention then was to establish a baseline to enable us to observe whether, as students paid more, the provision that was made for them improved.  In respect of those things measured by our survey it has not.  On the other hand, while it is true that students are paying higher fees – nine times higher – for the most part these increased fees have been accompanied by reduced grant from the Government, and so universities are not in a position to improve the provision that they make for students.

One finding in the surveys that is regularly seized upon by the media is that contact hours vary greatly, not only by subject – that is not in the least surprising given the different characteristics of , say, medicine and philosophy –  but also within a subject between universities. But even that is not in itself surprising. Different pedagogic approaches require a different balance between teaching and self-directed study.  What is important is that students understand what to expect and that universities are upfront about this – that is one of the key recommendations arising from the survey.  But as has been pointed out many times by others a focus on contact hours alone is unhelpful and naive. Contact hours themselves say nothing about the quality of teaching and learning or of the student experience, and indeed we found that by and large students – even those with the least amount of contact – were overwhelmingly satisfied with the amount of contact they received.

Of much greater concern is the large variation uncovered in the total amount of studying that students do. Differences between subjects may be explicable. What is more difficult to explain is the very large differences in the amount of study that may be required of students in different universities in the same subject. This suggests – we cannot put it stronger than that at present – that there are very different standards achieved in different universities in the same subject. It is a reasonable proposition that all else being equal a student who studies hard will achieve higher standards of knowledge and understanding at the end of their time at university than one who devotes much less time (in some cases less than half the time) to their study. This issue has been steadfastly ignored by leaders of the University establishment who conveniently conflate concerns about contact hours with concerns about total study effort and standards, and who respond to concerns about the latter by saying that the amount of contact is no indicator of quality standards – a complete non-sequitur. These are serious issues, and deserve to be addressed properly. It reflects no credit on those concerned that they avoid the issue.

Related to this is the fact that students appear to be studying no more than 900 hours a year on average (an average of about 30 hours weekly for about 30 weeks). That compares with 1200 hours a year that, according to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), students should be studying to obtain the 120 credits that one year of study brings. Again, the question arises, what does it say about standards in our universities if on average students are studying for just three quarters of the time that they should be studying, and yet obtain their degrees at the end of it? Another key recommendation arising from the study is that this ought to be investigated, understood and explained, and there are welcome signs that the QAA is engaging with this question. It is important. If it becomes known that English degrees are obtained on average with just three quarters of the effort that is required to obtain a degree elsewhere in Europe (and that is at present an assumption that has not been researched) then that will be potentially very serious for the reputation of our universities.

The other thing to note is that although students continue to put in far less hours than they should, nevertheless one significant change since the first survey in 2006 is that, whereas they are not receiving any more teaching and their group sizes are no smaller than before, they are putting in significantly more effort than they were – on average two hours per week more. One can speculate why that may be, but it could be that the fact that they are now paying such high fees combined with the difficult economic environment and the difficulty of securing employment means that students are forced to be much more serious about their study and that the imperative to obtain a good degree is increased. If so, then the problem about the amount of effort students put in may be not so much a problem of willingness to work hard but  a problem of expectations and demands on the part of universities.

A copy of the 2013 HEPI/Which Student Academic Experience Survey is available for download here