Leader: Unfortunate news measured on an uneven yardstick

September 28, 2007

It would be a mistake to conclude, as some in the media have already done, that English degrees are not only more expensive than their overseas equivalents but also less rigorous. The Higher Education Policy Institute's survey on student experience does not in fact make any such qualitative claim. It simply notes that students in England spend less time studying per week than their continental peers for degrees that can be completed in relatively short order. It goes on to say that the less effort seemingly needed here to achieve what elsewhere requires more time could lead to a perception that English degrees are not comparable to those on the Continent. This, in turn, could lead to a devaluation in the currency of our degrees at a time when many institutions are relying as never before on the overseas market as a major source of students and income.

However, this alarming prospectus comes with a great many caveats attached. The first is that there is no breakdown in the overseas comparisons between taught hours and private study. (Neither, for that matter, is there any in Hepi's survey of English institutions, although it would have made interesting reading.) But even if there were such a breakdown, it would be difficult to know what to deduce: is the directed study more common elsewhere in Europe less or more beneficial than the independent scholarship traditionally encouraged here? And does our tradition of specialisation at a relatively early age negate the need for a longer degree?

The second caveat is that it does not differentiate between the type of teaching - the relatively intimate seminar is lumped together with the massed lecture. But in a further twist, as Hepi points out, it is not crude contact hours that seem to determine how hard a student works, but how high the expectations are set and how good the quality of feedback received.

The third point is that Hepi's international conclusion relies on one measure of perceived quality: the hours students spend studying. It does not take into account such factors as dropout rates or graduate employability, for instance.

But the real problem with Hepi's overly pessimistic conclusion is that it is an awkward amalgam of an English-based student satisfaction survey with a comparison of European study and teaching hours. It does not compare like with like. Thanks to Hepi we know a lot about how English students - and overseas students at English universities - feel about the quality of the teaching they receive. We know nothing, however, about how students at Dutch, French and German institutions rate their experiences on similar indices. How would Spanish students rate the quality and frequency of assessment; what do their Italian peers have to say about student support?

Hot on the heels of the Hepi survey came one from i-graduate, which flatly contradicted any suggestion that the UK's overseas student market is vulnerable. Its reassuring - some might say Panglossian - conclusion is that overseas students are overwhelmingly content with their courses at British universities. Its survey was more than twice as big as Hepi's, but for international comparison it draws only on a few institutions in the UK's key competitor markets, namely the US, Australia, South Africa and the Netherlands.

It would be unwise for Britain's universities to be complacent in the face of growing competition for overseas students, particularly from low-cost, sprightly English-teaching institutions across the Channel. But in truth, Hepi's otherwise excellent piece of research has more to say about the expectations of a well-informed and increasingly demanding domestic student body than it does about the quality of English degrees in an international market.

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