Survey finds that contact time and study required at undergraduate level in England is far below the European average, reports Rebecca Attwood
England's undergraduate degrees are the least onerous in Europe, according to a study that raises "very serious" concerns about the vulnerability of the lucrative market for overseas students.
On average, undergraduate students at English universities receive a total of 14 hours of scheduled tuition each week. They put in an average of 26 hours of work a week, including lectures, tutorials and private study. This is about seven hours a week less than the European average, suggests a survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
As many as 34 per cent work what are, in effect, part-time hours of 20 hours a week or less while being enrolled as full-time students, and many of these still obtain top-class degrees.
At the extreme, Hepi said, students studying mass communications at Falmouth University study less than 15 hours a week on average, and yet 82.5 per cent graduate with a 2.1 or higher.
The findings have sparked a debate whether England's undergraduate degrees are less demanding than those elsewhere, and led to warnings over the future of the international student market.
"These are potentially very serious findings... There is bound to be increasing pressure on English universities to explain how their shorter, less intensive courses match those elsewhere in Europe," say the study's authors, Tom Sastry and Bahram Bekhradnia.
They say the figures are particularly unsettling in the light of other findings in the report that show that a "worryingly" high proportion of non European Union students at English universities - per cent - rate the value for money of their courses as "poor" or "very poor". It makes the UK market for overseas students "vulnerable", said Mr Bekhradnia.
Although 33 per cent of English graduates do more than 6 hours of paid work per week, in Latvia students work 31 hours a week to supplement their income and still manage to fit in 33 hours of study.
Graham Gibbs, former director of the Oxford Learning Institute, said: "The high levels of average satisfaction reported in the National Student Survey may need to be reinterpreted if what students are satisfied with is an education that makes comparatively low demands on them."
But the report also acknowledges that the figures do not necessarily reflect the quality of English degrees.
"I don't think the number of hours reported working on a degree is a good measure of the quality of a degree," said Roger Murphy of the School of Education's Centre for Developing and Evaluating Lifelong Learning at Nottingham University. "UK degrees are still very highly regarded around the world," he said.
Ronald Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, said: "I think continental Europeans do have a culture where students are in the company of their tutors much more, whereas here we are trying to foster independent learning."
A spokesman for Universities UK, said: "The report is right to say that length of study does not equate to quality of learning. It is not surprising that the range of courses in different universities involves varying use of facilities, contact hours and so on.
"Comparisons between students in English universities and those in other European countries are difficult due to the lack of comparable data... The report states that UK students study less than European students, but length of study does not tell us anything about the quality of the degree compared to European degrees," said the spokesman. He noted that the Bologna Process, by which degree courses are being harmonised across Europe, increasingly talked about "the learning outcomes of study rather than measures of duration".
"UK qualifications are in line with this," he said. The only recommendation of duration in the Bologna Process was that bachelor-level qualifications should last a minimum three years, as UK bachelor degrees do.
Nigel Kingcome, a course leader in English and media studies and English and creative writing at Falmouth, said: "The focus of English at Falmouth is quality teaching, not quantity of hours taught. We are highly regarded as a teaching institution.
"In addition to our taught hours, we offer a high level of additional support such as online learning, an excellent tutorial system and a strong emphasis on the development of student-centred skills."
OLD V NEW: WHO OFFERS MORE?
The ability of the leading research-intensive universities to attract high quality students is allowing them to exploit a "cheaper" and possibly more effective teaching model, the Higher Education Policy Institute report suggests.
While newer universities are more likely to offer more teaching hours and smaller group teaching by academics, old universities seem to be pursuing a model that provides less formal teaching but demands more work from students in the form of assignments, according to Hepi.
Students at the research-intensive Russell Group universities submit an average of eight assignments a term, compared to just 5.3 a term at post-92 universities.
"This model is almost certainly cheaper but possibly more effective for such [highly qualified] students than the high teaching input, lower-demand model that institutions with lower entry requirements are forced to adopt," the report says.
Graham Gibbs, former director of the Oxford Learning Institute, who has analysed the findings, said that students work hardest when they are given a high volume of assessment and feedback.
He said: "Assessment patterns may be a much better predictor of student effort than teaching patterns. Students may skip classes and may not prepare well for classes, but they make sure that they submit the necessary assignments. And while classes may not generate much study time, required assignments clearly do."