Oxbridge student experience ‘way ahead’ of rest of Russell Group

Hepi survey data spanning six years suggest students do not rate other members of mission group very differently from UK universities overall

May 24, 2018
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Students rate their experience at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge significantly more positively than their counterparts at other Russell Group institutions, which are not viewed very differently from other UK campuses.

That is the overarching theme to emerge from a Higher Education Policy Institute study that draws on six editions of its annual Student Academic Experience Survey ­­to see how Oxbridge compares with other universities.

According to the analysis, Oxbridge students are more satisfied with their courses, believe that they get better feedback and enjoy greater well-being than those attending other Russell Group institutions, despite studying for longer hours.

Given the small tutorial sizes on offer at the universities, such findings might not be too surprising, but the analysis also reveals that students do not rate other Russell Group universities very differently from UK institutions in general.

And in one case – the frequency of large class sizes – students at other Russell Group universities appear to have a poorer experience than either Oxbridge or the sector as a whole. Almost 60 per cent of students at other Russell Group institutions had at least one class a week with more than 100 other people, compared with 42 per cent at Oxbridge and for the UK overall.

Elsewhere, the student experience in the rest of the Russell Group is broadly in line with the UK overall, but very different at Oxbridge.

For instance, 82 per cent of Oxbridge students said that they received feedback within one week, way ahead of those in other Russell Group universities (13 per cent) or UK higher education overall (11 per cent).

Almost nine in 10 (87 per cent) Oxbridge students reported having learned “a lot” since starting their course, compared with 70 per cent elsewhere in the Russell Group and 66 per cent in all universities.

And Oxbridge students were much more likely to be “very satisfied” with their course, with 59 per cent saying this compared with 31 per cent at both other Russell Group institutions and UK universities overall.

Oxbridge was outscored by other universities on one aspect: across all institutions 52 per cent of students felt that lecturers used original or creative teaching methods “a lot” or “quite a bit”, higher than at Oxbridge (41 per cent) and also other Russell Group institutions (45 per cent).

The report – based on responses from more than 60,000 undergraduates completing the survey between 2012 and 2017 – also shows that students typically work 12 hours more a week at Oxford and Cambridge compared with other institutions, albeit during shorter terms.

However, student well-being does not appear to be affected: 57 per cent of those at Oxbridge said they felt that their lives were very worthwhile, 10 percentage points higher than students at other institutions.

Charlotte Freitag, a postgraduate student at Oxford who co-authored the report with Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, said that she was “surprised that Oxbridge students are happier and more satisfied with their lives…while working 12 hours more per week”.

“On the other hand, I did not expect them to perceive their teaching to be less original than students elsewhere, but that is the case,” she said.

Mr Hillman said that the study had revealed “an even more positive story than I expected” for Oxford and Cambridge, adding that the UK was “fortunate to have two such undeniably excellent institutions”.

However, he continued, it was “crucial that policymakers remember the degree to which Oxbridge is exceptional rather than typical. Anyone who assumes that the same policy interventions will work across the board is likely to be disappointed.”

A Russell Group spokeswoman said: “We are pleased to see the universities of Oxford and Cambridge score so highly among their students. Oxford and Cambridge are tremendous assets for the UK and the sector as a whole.

“We will read Hepi’s report with interest. It is encouraging to see that course satisfaction levels for all students in the survey, whether Russell Group or not, is around the 90 per cent mark, which shows how well UK universities are doing overall.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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