It's about time, but it's about feedback as well

September 28, 2007

Student surveys show that the sector must explain why UK degrees are good value, says Deian Hopkin

How do we really know whether our students are satisfied? How do they judge value for money? Two recent reports will fuel the debate over what constitutes a good experience at a British university, and this in turn will be an interesting backdrop to the approaching review of higher education funding.

A fortnight ago, the results of the 2007 National Student Survey showed, as in 2006, a generally high level of student satisfaction across the sector and across the range of provision, from teaching to physical facilities. But another survey this week, this time from the Higher Education Policy Institute, explores many aspects of student satisfaction that do not feature in the NSS. It delves into the number of taught hours provided by different institutions and across different subject areas, distinguishing between assessment and formal teaching and seeking to relate fee levels to satisfaction.

The picture it paints, albeit at an aggregate level, appears less reassuring. Considerable variation emerges between universities and also between subjects, with research-intensive universities offering the least amount of scheduled teaching, and post-92 universities the most.

However, once assessment is included, the reverse becomes the case, with Oxbridge imposing the greatest overall workload (perhaps linked to shorter terms in those institutions).

Variation between subjects is even greater, with history or creative media, for example, providing a less demanding workload overall than science or medicine.

The report also compares the British and continental experience and reveals that UK students receive substantially fewer teaching hours than students of virtually any European country and yet are charged far higher fees - potentially damaging in the overseas market unless it is properly explained.

So, what are we to make of this? Position in the published league tables is clearly no guide to student satisfaction, as the reversed position of some highly placed and low-rated institutions demonstrate. So it would be tempting to point the finger at illustrious universities for offering, as the Hepi report implies, a cheaper form of education; ironic at a time when the case for lifting the cap on tuition fees gathers momentum! However, we all know that students who attend more selective institutions may be less reliant on formal teaching. And we should not suggest that historians get away with murder because they have fewer scheduled teaching hours; frankly, a history student who does not spend considerable time in private study may not develop the right skills any more than a physicist who does not spend many hours of supervised laboratory time.

Some important signals emerge from the Hepi study. Higher tuition fees appear to generate greater dissatisfaction. Will this grow as debt levels increase or will a recent extension of grant support mitigate this?

It is very clear, however, that students value assessment and feedback more than class contact and are less pleased with what they actually get. Interestingly, they would prefer to see their teachers better trained rather than better paid but would rather pay less in fees than either of those options. Above all, both surveys suggest that additional teaching hours may not be as effective in delivering satisfaction as more effective personal supervision. It is also worth noting, however, that students who work part time are more satisfied if that work links to their study.

Detractors may conclude from the Hepi report that universities are being paid for full-time students who are not studying full time. That would be a facile conclusion. Higher education is not solely composed of timetabled activity any more than the contribution of an academic is measured by the number of contact hours he or she fulfils. It is the combination of scheduled and private study that accounts for the real value of UK education.

However, the clear message is that universities, and academics likewise, do need to explain very clearly what is the real value of a degree that involves so much unaccounted time and activity.

Despite different questions, these surveys have produced some broadly similar conclusions and suggest that while the higher education sector may take pride in its reputation and general approval of its customers, it needs to look very carefully at how it delivers and explains its product in the future, especially as new competitors, at home and overseas, begin to appear.

And if it is shown that British universities provide less direct teaching than their continental counterparts while charging much higher fees, is there not a danger that this might been seen as poorer value for money? That may take some explaining.

Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.

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