Small-group teaching and private study on the rise, Hepi study indicates

May 7, 2009

The amount of small-group teaching provided by universities may have increased since the introduction of top-up fees, but sector bodies are "ignoring" evidence that students in England put in fewer hours of study than elsewhere in Europe, a new report suggests.

The Higher Education Policy Institute's latest survey of contact and study hours found there has been no statistically significant increase in hours of formal teaching since 2007, with students receiving an average of 14.5 timetabled hours a week.

However, the amount of private study appears to have risen from 12.6 to 14.4 hours and the proportion of teaching given in small groups from 6.4 to 10.3 per cent.

"Whether as a result of the interest raised by our previous surveys, or as a result of student pressure following the higher fees they now pay ... there are indications that universities are addressing the question of their commitment to students about how much teaching they receive, who will teach them and how much will be expected of them," the report says.

Hepi's study, which is based on a survey of 2,000 students, praises universities that have sought to identify where they are out of step with other institutions, and those that have begun to give more detail in their prospectuses about the amount and nature of the teaching contact that students can expect.

But Hepi says "it is a matter of regret" that the response of national bodies "has largely been to avoid the issues".

The institute's 2007 survey, which surveyed 15,000 students, suggested that English degrees were the least burdensome in Europe, and a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England last week supported the conclusion that UK students study for fewer hours per week than their European counterparts.

Hepi said national organisations had been "disappointingly defensive" about its findings, which also showed that students taking some subjects were putting in far fewer hours of study than students in other disciplines.

"If the issue is simply ignored ... the presumption will be that degrees in this country are more easily available in some universities and in some subjects than elsewhere in Europe, and that on average our degree standards are lower," the report warns.

"That is a reasonable conclusion until it has been demonstrated that this is not so."

It says there has been a proposal to extend the OECD-wide Programme for International Student Assessment tests, which was previously applied only to school-aged pupils, to higher education students, and argues this would allow the UK to "say confidently" whether its students achieve the same standards.

• As Times Higher Education went to press, King's College London and the University of Warwick announced they had been awarded £544,000 from Hefce to create a "blueprint" for curriculum development in research-led universities.

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