How can universities support students to work harder?

A new generation of ‘dual-intensive’ universities can do the job, argues Edward Acton

October 17, 2013

Source: Alamy

Vice-chancellors went in for denial and too many refused to acknowledge how far their undergraduates’ workloads trailed behind Oxbridge

How many people actually work at the Bank of England?” went the question when I was a trainee there in the 1970s, the answer being: “About half.” That jibe has often run through my mind as evidence has mounted of a sharp decline in the academic effort required of UK undergraduates.

Mercifully British universities are now shoring up their weakest flank. That is the heartening message to be taken from the Higher Education Policy Institute/Which? Student Academic Experience Survey, published in May of this year. From a historic low six to seven years ago, UK undergraduates have on average increased the time they devote to study during term by nearly two hours a week.

When Hepi did its first undergraduate surveys in 2006 and 2007, the findings were deeply disturbing: incontrovertible proof that in many subjects the time students spend on studying had been gravely eroded.

Academics had begun to express concern in the 1980s, and by the early 1990s it was plain that the amount of work required of UK undergraduates was significantly lower than it had been two decades earlier, particularly in essay-based subjects.

Two European Commission surveys of those graduating in 1995 and 2000 found that while the average weekly time devoted to study by undergraduates had increased in most countries, in the UK it had shrunk: by 2000, it was down to 30 hours, the lowest of any country surveyed. Having been above the European Union average, the UK had fallen a full five hours below – all the more striking given the shorter duration of our programmes.

Next came a 2002 study of Erasmus exchange students, which found that those visiting the UK were much more likely to report finding the courses less demanding than the ones they pursued at home than their peers visiting any other EU country.

Five years later came the extensive Hepi surveys showing that the UK study-time average had fallen to little more than 26 hours.

The Hepi studies also highlighted wide variations between British institutions offering the same degree subjects. Most striking was the yawning gap between the mean amount of study undertaken at Oxbridge and all the others. On average, in comparable subject areas, students at the University of Cambridge spent 40 per cent more hours and at the University of Oxford 30 per cent more – equivalent to a year’s extra study – than students at other Russell Group universities and their 1994 Group peers. Compared with the sector overall, the differential rose to 50 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. The crucial ingredient, especially in essay-based subjects, is Oxbridge’s insistence on a vastly greater volume of written formative work combined with swift and high-quality feedback.

Given the importance of this issue, one might have expected a concerted effort by university leaders and policymakers to tackle the problem. But the response from the higher education Establishment was not impressive. Vice-chancellors went in for stout denial about the international data, and too many in the 1994 Group and the Russell Group refused to acknowledge how far their undergraduates’ workloads trailed behind those of Oxbridge, instead of facing reality and resolving to outperform the antiquated tutorial system.

Meanwhile, the Quality Assurance Agency’s institutional audits continued to blithely avoid the question: “How hard do the students work?” While the Higher Education Academy loudly and rightly decried the notion that contact hours are the pivotal variable in educational experience, it remained remarkably quiet on Hepi’s findings about total study hours.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England did at least commission a comparative analysis of UK and EU study time. But when its 2009 report, Diversity in the Student Learning Experience and Time Devoted to Study: A Comparative Analysis of the UK and European Evidence, confirmed that the UK figure was comparatively low and falling, Hefce took refuge in the embarrassing gloss that although there is evidence of a relationship between time spent on university studies and a successful learning outcome, “the relationship is not particularly strong”.

There may be activities where this holds true – tiddlywinks comes to mind – but it is a strange assertion about university-level learning.

Female student reading in library

Institutions of this type combine the ability simultaneously to deliver research of the highest quality and to evoke the keenest student enthusiasm

The report recognised that while harder work yields better exam marks, an even tighter correlation might have been expected than was found. But it went on to emphasise that a raft of other “learning outcomes” – preparation for starting work, subsequent career momentum and above all personal development – depend hugely on the number of hours students devote to their studies. The correlation between study time and beneficial learning outcomes is close and crystal clear.

That correlation makes it vital to build on the upturn that Hepi’s latest surveys herald.

Full recovery will require a long-term cultural shift, but will powerfully reinforce our academy’s competitive advantage internationally. Once study time at other universities is in the same league as the Oxbridge norm, their students can expect to reap comparable rewards in understanding, proficiency, confidence and personal development. The most able will be fully equipped to challenge the overrepresentation of Oxbridge alumni in so much of our public life.

Can it be done? Student attitudes will be pivotal and the omens are not all good. I recall hearing about one university that, following Hepi’s original findings, inserted in a draft student charter the responsibility for students “to engage vigorously with their studies”. Student representatives responded by asking that the word “vigorously” be crossed out.

In similar vein, while Oxford and Cambridge do spectacularly well on almost all questions posed by the National Student Survey and the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, there is one exception: “Is the workload fair?” On that, they have almost the most negative scores in the country. This may remain the case until other institutions raise their game and the Oxbridge norm ceases to be such an outlier.

Might the steep rise to £9,000 fees, which is certainly fuelling demand for more contact hours, whet student appetite for more total study time? The prospects may be best where student satisfaction generally (and enthusiasm for the quality of teaching in particular) is highest. That points to those research-intensive universities whose structures echo Oxbridge in being conducive to combining teaching intensity with research intensity.

The definitive common features of these “dual-intensives” is the limited, personal scale of their undergraduate intake. This facilitates close individual focus on each student within an exhilarating environment of top-quality research and healthy undergraduate-to-postgraduate ratios. Typically located on an agreeable residential campus with high-calibre social, sporting and cultural facilities, and collegiate in ethos and sometimes in structure, such institutions create an intense and integrated community of scholarship. They are ideally formed to make real the slogan “work hard, play hard”.

Such institutions’ full-time undergraduate numbers are generally under 10,000 or, where there is a strong college system, up to around 12,000. In his annual address last year, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, emphasised that maintaining a ceiling on its student numbers – presently 3,300 per year cohort – was essential to sustaining the superb undergraduate education delivered there.

Pioneered in the UK by Oxbridge, the University of St Andrews and Durham University and by the Ivy League in the US, institutions of this type combine the ability simultaneously to deliver research of the highest quality and to evoke the keenest student enthusiasm. In this country, most are or have been members of the 1994 Group, while a handful of their bedfellows, including Oxbridge, have long made up a minority – but the cream – of the Russell Group.

It is the dual-intensives, in particular those outside London, that dominate the upper echelons of the NSS and the THE Student Experience Survey. In this they tend to outperform the other family of UK research-intensives, the 13 so-called “big civics” established in the UK’s major industrial cities that make up the bulk of the Russell Group.

These fine, predominantly Victorian institutions have significantly larger undergraduate populations: the University of Nottingham has more than 21,000 such students, the University of Leeds more than 22,000, while the University of Manchester has passed the 26,000 mark. I spent the first half of my career lecturing in two of them and have not been surprised, as the NSS shows year after year, that such institutions have more difficulty than do the dual-intensives in evoking student enthusiasm. Moreover, I recall a former vice-chancellor of another big civic lamenting what he called the “elephantine” slowness with which it could achieve cultural shifts of the kind needed.

At present, Hepi figures suggest that undergraduates at non-Oxbridge dual-intensives typically undertake much the same amount of study time as the big civics. But the keener student enthusiasm evoked among the former, and their more agile structures, give them the opportunity and arguably the responsibility to take the lead in intensifying undergraduate study and reducing the Oxbridge advantage. Once that ball is set rolling, I have no doubt that, given the quality of the big civics’ current leadership, they would be determined to follow suit.

Students working on university steps

This agenda is being seized by members of the 1994 Group, confident that it addresses aspirations and anxieties expressed not only by academics but also by employers, parents, teachers, careers advisers and political opinion across the spectrum. The group’s members are positioning themselves for an intensity drive that stands to put clear blue water between their students and those of the big civics.

At the University of East Anglia, the outright winner of this year’s THE Student Experience Survey as well as joint second for overall satisfaction in the NSS, we have made this goal integral to our academic vision.

To increase study time, we are working in partnership with students and using a number of supporting strategies, including peer-assisted and interactive digital learning. But we have focused in particular on three factors that contributed to the decline in workloads across the country.

The first, taking hold during the long resource famine of the 1980s and 1990s, was the deterioration in staff-to-student ratios. If the key to intensifying student effort is stepping up formative work with brisk and high-quality feedback (on which we have much work to do), an absolutely critical variable is academic capacity. Given that we are also significantly expanding our 4* and 3* research capacity, we have made the delivery of a top-flight staff-to-student ratio – it is currently 13.5:1 – a cornerstone of the university’s planning.

The second is the impact of successive research assessment exercises, with incentives increasingly focused on research. University leaders sought to increase available research time; heads of school looked to free up for research time once spent on student-facing activity; and individual scholars had every encouragement to move the same way. A reduction in marking loads looked like excellent academic management, and formative work was first to suffer.

The imperative to protect the time available for top-flight research remains as strong as ever. Indeed, as international competition intensifies it will become stronger still, regardless of the future of the research excellence framework. The challenge is simultaneously to increase student-facing time.

Our approach has been to develop twin academic career pathways of equal status. Both require academics of the highest calibre and both involve enterprise and public engagement where appropriate. But whereas the majority combine research with teaching, a strategic minority concentrate more fully on education. The former focus on finely targeted specialisation; the latter have a broader but no less intellectually demanding remit for ensuring that our programmes stay abreast of research advances across the world, for thinking through and synthesising the wider implications of specialist research, and for state-of-the-art pedagogical innovation.

This new “scholarship” career track responds to the dramatic acceleration in international research, fuelled by huge investment beyond North America and Europe. In more and more fields it is possible either to contribute to specialised advance or to keep fully abreast of new findings in every continent, but devilishly difficult to do both. As a specialist in modern Russian and Soviet history, if I am determined to spend the summer in the archives I will simply be unable to sift and digest all the new work from around the world, including each of the former USSR’s 15 successor republics. Yet it is integral to the promise of “research-led” teaching that as well as being delivered in large part by academics who themselves contribute to research of international quality, our degrees be informed by the latest advances in understanding.

Colleagues on this “scholarship” pathway have helped us to increase formative work and accelerate innovation in our degrees. We now have formidable public intellectuals occupying scholarship chairs in each faculty, often prominent in their professional milieu outside the academy, be it a leading literary critic, a former home secretary, a specialist on workforce planning, an international brand consultant, a prominent competition economist or a national leader in curriculum development.

The twin-track academic career structure is also helping us to address the third and most interesting factor that has eroded study time: the impact of intellectual developments associated with postmodernism. Where discourse analysis bred the greatest academic self-doubt and even crude relativism, the syllabus imperatives of an earlier era were abandoned to the greatest degree and the amount of required work fell furthest – above all in the humanities and social sciences. Turning the tide here demands intellectual leadership focused on the curriculum; the willingness to prioritise and to distinguish more firmly between core and non-core; and (where appropriate) bold and radical syllabus revision.

Parallel moves are in hand across the 1994 Group. One way to accelerate the process across the sector would be for domestic league tables to introduce and give weight to a key performance indicator on student study time. It would need to rest on a statistically robust audit, brokered by Hefce, that builds on Hepi’s work, covers all years of study and makes allowance at the institutional level for subject mix – but it would ensure that Hepi’s latest findings do not turn out to be a flash in the pan.

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