A joint study by Which? and HEPI, to be published on 15 May to coincide with HEPI’s Spring Conference, has produced the most comprehensive research yet into the student academic experience.
The 2013 survey builds on the student surveys first carried out by HEPI in 2006, when the new system of higher education funding was introduced, with the aim of establishing whether, as students paid more, they would receive a “better” academic experience. With fees trebling again in September 2012, this present survey has been conducted during the first year of the new substantially higher fee regime. However, it is important to flag up that although students pay more and might expect to receive more for their money, for the most part universities are no better off, as increased student fees are balanced by reduced government grant. Their ability to make better provision for students has not increased.
With a combined sample of 26,000 students from the 2013 and 2012 surveys, HEPI & Which? have been able to compare the experience of students studying the same subject at one university against another. It also includes the experiences of 3rd and 4th year students for the first time, and the experiences of students at universities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As previous HEPI surveys showed, the findings from the 2013 Which?/HEPI survey again reveal that there is no sign that as students pay more they are receiving more for their money, and that is reflected in a sharp increase in the proportion of students who feel that they are not receiving good value for money:
- Contact hours are important to students and in the 2013 survey, the great majority of students were satisfied regardless of how much contact they received but within this overall general satisfaction, those with the least contact were least satisfied. Universities that do not satisfy students about the amount of contact they provide will have more dissatisfied students.
- Students were asked for priorities for the use of the additional fees they now pay. Increasing contact with staff together with reductions in the size of teaching groups were the two options whose mention had increased over the years more than any others.
- Students who have term-time employment are marginally more likely on average to miss time-tabled lessons (9% compared to 7.2% among those who did not have employment). Considering the evidence that students with term-time employment tend to do less well in their studies than others, this will be of concern if the new funding arrangements lead to more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds taking such employment.
- The QAA guidelines assume that a full-time student at a UK university studies for a total of 1200 hours per year (with the QAA judging that 10 hours of study provides one credit and a three year honours degree requires 120 credits per year for 3 years). The implications of the findings of the 2013 survey (which are consistent with the findings from earlier HEPI surveys) is that on average students at English universities study for no more than 900 hours per year ie students study for less than 3/4; of the time that is expected for a degree programme. This suggests that on average the standards of degrees are not as has been assumed – or that the calibration of a credit against 10 hours of study needs to be reconsidered.
- There is a large variation between those universities that require the most and those that require the least amount of effort in any one subject. In addition, the findings also reveal that there are many institutions where formal lessons are relatively few and that is not compensated by the amount of private study required – which raises again the question about the comparability of standards between these institutions. It is unlikely that on average students studying for less than half the time studied by other students in the same subject will achieve the same outcomes but almost all obtain degrees, no matter the differences in the amount of studying they have done.
- Nearly one third of the students surveyed said they would definitely or possibly have chosen a different course if they had been given the chance, with a significantly larger proportion of students from new universities saying so than old (which is not surprising given that so many more students enter new universities through clearing than others and by definition such students are not entering courses they had chosen to enter). This points to the importance of reforming the admissions process to create a better match between student aptitude and course selection.
In order to ensure continuity, and in order to enable comparisons to be drawn, the methodology adopted for the 2013 survey has been the same as in previous surveys. Most of the questions are identical, though one or two have been omitted and a small number of new questions added. Where the methodology has changed we have avoided making comparisons with previous years. The full report, produced by Which?, provides a detailed write-up of the methodology.
The sample size of this survey is larger than that of any of the previous surveys, and when the results of this and last year’s survey are combined they provide sufficient responses to enable comparisons to be made between institutions at the subject level – that that is to say they allow the experience of students at one university in, say, physical sciences to be compared with that of students at another university in the physical sciences. Students will be able to access this information via an interactive tool on the Which? University website which will go live on 15 May (www.which.co.uk/academicexperience) However, a number of caveats applies: in particular, for the results to be statistically valid a minimum number of responses are required, and so there are universities active in a subject the results for which are not shown - the institutional analysis is not a comprehensive one. However, for all the analyses conducted at the institution level sufficient responses have been received to enable comprehensive and statistically robust conclusions to be drawn.