Students are more satisfied with traditional academic subjects than new "sexy" vocational disciplines such as media studies, suggests the first national student satisfaction survey.
Figures leaked to The Times Higher reveal that degree subjects such as philosophy, history and the sciences are among those rated most favourably by students.
Students on philosophy courses report the highest median "overall satisfaction" levels, with 4.3 out of a maximum five points, closely followed by history and archaeology, physical science, biology and English-based studies, all of which have a rating of 4.2.
Subjects such as mathematical sciences and European languages - increasingly spurned at school level - rate highly among students in higher education, both registering a median score of 4.1 out of five.
These results contrast with those for the ten subjects rated least satisfactory by students.
Art and design has the lowest median "overall satisfaction" rating of 3.7 out of five, closely followed by media studies, computer science and technology with 3.8. Tourism, transport travel and business, communications and information studies, and management each score 3.9.
"Perhaps the days when vice-chancellors could guarantee they could get bums on seats and fill all their places by putting on more and more courses such as media studies are over," said Andy Pike, national official at lecturers' union Natfhe.
"These results are perhaps a sign that vice-chancellors need to think long and hard about whether to continue to push those subjects."
Christine Geraghty, chairwoman of the management committee of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association, said a gap between students' career expectations and the reality might explain the lower levels of contentedness.
"Media studies courses have lost their Mickey Mouse tag through high levels of graduate employment and other elements," she said.
"But while we don't say that if you do media studies you will get a job in media, it is possible that some students expect that."
Professor Geraghty, who holds the chair in film and television studies at Glasgow University, added: "It is possible that one of the issues might be sufficient investment in the subjects - especially in terms of access to equipment.
"In the case of art and design, and media, there is a strong hands-on element. Universities may not be sufficiently looking at this when developing new courses," she said.
Yet the overall satisfaction results of the survey, published for the first time in The Times Higher , mask a more complex picture of students' feelings about their degree courses.
The survey posed a series of questions to students covering different aspects of degree courses. These were: teaching on courses; assessment and feedback; academic support; organisation and management; learning resources; and personal development.
What will intrigue lecturers and admissions tutors is that some subjects fare well in some categories while performing relatively poorly in others.
One of the lowest ratings produced by final-year students, for example, concerns veterinary sciences, where respondents rated the subject only 2.9 out of five for assessment and feedback provided on degree courses.
Yet veterinary sciences tops the satisfaction ratings for academic support offered during their study (scoring four out of five).
Medicine and dentistry scores most highly - 4.3 out of five - in terms of personal development. But medics and dentists are among the worst performers, when it comes to assessment and feedback, scoring three out of five.
Philosophy, theology and religious studies students are most likely to find their teachers inspirational, giving this aspect of their courses 4.2 out of 5 on average.
The results also offer some more general lessons for lecturers.
Students were least happy with the quality of their "assessment and feedback" - no subject scored more than 3.8. They were also critical - across most subject areas - of the "organisation and management" of their courses.
In this category, art and design was rated at only 3.3, while media studies and tourism, transport and business received 3.6.
Academics will be more pleased with the ratings for teaching on degree courses, with most subjects scoring more than four out of five in this category.
For Alan Smithers, professor of education at the private Buckingham University, however, the generally high satisfaction levels are excellent news for advocates of higher top-up tuition fees such as himself.
"It is good news that the general level of satisfaction is so high," he said.
"By and large, they are receiving their education as a free good and it could be that they still want to have these experiences - even if they have to contribute more towards the cost."
Professor Smithers said that next year the sector would get the first indication of how students react to the emerging market in higher education, when top-up fees of £3,000 are introduced.
"But these figures mean that it is now more conceivable that they could be raised even higher shortly," he said.
HIGHS AND LOWS
The teaching on my course
Assessment and feedback
Organisation and management
Happy customers: student survey results
No of institutions
(out of 5)
Philosophy, theology and religious studies
History and archaeology
Physical geography and environmental science
Biology and related sciences
Human and social geography
Civil, chemical and other engineering
European languages and area studies
Medical science and pharmacy
Medicine and dentistry
Agriculture and related subjects
Other subjects allied to medicine
Sociology, social policy and anthropology
Other languages and area studies
Finance and accounting
Electronic and electrical engineering
Communications and information studies
Mechanically based engineering
Tourism, transport, travel
Architecture, building and planning
Other creative arts
Art and design