Three times the cost but same timetable

Hepi data show class sizes and contact time unaffected by higher fees. Jack Grove reports

May 17, 2012

Trebling tuition fees the first time around has failed to raise the quality or quantity of contact hours for students.

That is the conclusion of a study by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which found that on average, undergraduates received 13.9 hours of formal teaching a week in 2011-12 - roughly the same as when tuition fees were £1,225 a year in 2005-06, close to a third of the 2011-12 cap of £3,375.

Class sizes have also remained the same, according to the report, titled The Academic Experience of Students at English Universities, published on 17 May.

Students enjoy an average of 48 minutes a week in classes of six or fewer people, six minutes more than in 2005-06, while the amount of time spent in medium-sized classes of between seven and 16 students is largely unchanged.

The survey of 10,000 first- and second-year students, undertaken by polling firm YouthSight, follows interviews with 15,000 students for similar surveys in 2006 and 2007.

It casts doubt on whether students can expect more when fees are trebled yet again in September, according to Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi.

"The amount of contact hours has hardly changed in the past five or six years. Students are not getting anything more," he said. "David Willetts (the universities and science minister) has been quite adamant he would not charge more unless students were getting more for their money. However, apparently they are not."

Nearly 45 per cent of students who have fewer than seven hours of teaching a week are dissatisfied with the contact hours they receive, the report says; for those with 16 to 20 hours of teaching, the figure is 10 per cent.

However, this link between teaching hours and student satisfaction is misleading because many outstanding degrees have relatively small amounts of academic contact time, Mr Bekhradnia said.

"Universities need to explain better why students might be getting only three hours a week of contact time, if that is the case," he said.

The study also reveals that students at new universities are more likely to be taught in smaller classes than their peers at older universities.

Undergraduates at post-92s receive a weekly average of 2.9 hours of teaching in groups of seven to 16 compared with 2.4 hours for students at older universities.

Overall, the number of contact hours is marginally higher at older universities - 13.1 hours compared with 12.4 hours - but pre-92s tend to use graduate students more frequently. Almost a third of all seminars and tutorials at pre-92 universities are overseen by postgraduates, compared with fewer than one in 10 at post-92s.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said the Hepi study cast "further doubt" on the government's assertion that it was putting students at the heart of the system by raising fees.

"It is clear that changing funding from investment to loans does not increase the amount going into teaching and does not give students the power to direct their learning."

Small-group classes in England’s academy
Class size1-6 students7-16 studentsTotal (1-16)
All institutions0.8 hours2.7 hours3.5 hours
Pre-92s0.8 hours2.4 hours3.2 hours
Post-92s0.8 hours2.9 hours3.7 hours
Other institutions*1.1 hours3.7 hours4.8 hours
Figures represent hours per week spent in smaller classes. *’Other institutions’ includes specialist colleges. Source: Hepi

Part-timers by degree? Hepi analysis raises ‘potentially awkward questions’

Business and media studies courses with “part-time” workloads may be devaluing the brand of degrees in England.

That is the view of Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, after ­figures on the hours worked by students on a range of courses raised “potentially awkward questions” about the value and comparability of different courses.

Hepi’s report found that students on media courses complete just over 20 hours of private study and formal teaching each week (see graph below) – almost half the workload of ­medical or dentistry undergraduates, who study for 37.2 hours a week on average.

Business and administration students work for just 21.3 hours a week, while the average student workload stands at .2 hours a week. Students at pre-92 universities tend to have heavier workloads (28.6 hours a week) than those at new institutions (25.9 hours), but also fewer teaching hours, the survey of 10,000 students states.

Some courses have little more than “part-time” workloads, given the small amount of contact hours combined with low levels of private study, Mr Bekhradnia said.

“If students are devoting very ­different amounts of effort to their studies, but all are getting the same ‘degree’, what does it mean?” he asked. “It raises some interesting policy questions if you can get a degree with such different levels of study.”

He said that “ultimately” the focus would shift on to degree standards, which was an “uncomfort-able” question – as is the finding that students in English universities by and large devote far less effort to their studies than their European counterparts.

“It seems no one is prepared to address this question,” Mr Bekhradnia said.

The introduction of fast-track two-year honours degrees, part-time courses lasting three years or “no-frills” budget programmes meant that degree comparability had become an urgent issue, he added.

“As these innovative courses come onstream, it becomes all the more imperative to look at what they are offering and what they are demanding from students,” he said.

“We must be able to satisfy ourselves on the issue of equivalence with the more traditional degree courses they are replacing.”

The figures do indicate that the amount of private study carried out by students is higher than was shown in Hepi’s previous two student surveys.

The average has risen to 14.4 hours a week – a significant increase over the 13.1 hours and 12.7 hours recorded in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

The hours: total workload by subject (Source: Hepi)

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