University applicants ‘expect more contact hours than at school’

Unrealistic expectations of would-be students revealed by major survey

July 4, 2017
Lecture, boring, lecturer, students
Source: iStock

More than half of applicants to UK universities expect to spend more time in lectures than they do in school lessons, a new report says.

In one of the first major studies of student expectations when they arrive on campus, the Higher Education Policy Institute and accommodation provider Unite Students found that 60 per cent of students believe that they will have more time in class than at school. Only 19 per cent of students find that this happens.

The study, which polled about 2,000 university applicants, also provides an early insight into applicants’ perceptions of the new teaching excellence framework, with 72 per cent of applicants saying that whether a university has a ‘gold’ rating is important to them.

It says that almost half (46 per cent) anticipate more one-to-one support than at school, but only 36 per cent of students find this to be the case, according to Unite Students’ annual Student Insight Survey.

Evidence of students’ inflated expectations about teaching and learning is likely to fuel debate on the use of student satisfaction surveys to assess quality.

Universities minister Jo Johnson has said that he is concerned that many students do not feel that they receive value for money from their courses, where undergraduates often only receive a handful of contact hours a week.

Managing the expectations of students should be an important part of a university’s orientation programme, said Nick Hillman, director of Hepi.

“Schools, parents and universities – not to mention policymakers – all need to help school leavers to get real about their expectations,” he said.

“Most applicants expect to spend more time in lectures than they do in school lessons, but few university students actually do this."

Institutions should seek to improve pre-arrival communications with students, as well as on-campus interactions, to fix the “significant gap” between what university applicants think higher education is like and the realities of student life, Mr Hillman added.

The research also shows that applicants prepare for university in a state of mixed emotions.

While 81 per cent are excited about the prospect, 61 per cent said that they were anxious, with 58 per cent having had trouble sleeping and 27 per cent reporting panic attacks.

Richard Smith, chief executive officer of Unite Students, said that the report shows a “number of areas in which applicants’ expectations do not match up to reality.”

“Coming at a time when applicants are simultaneously stressed about exams, worried, nervous and excited about moving away from home for the first time – this may have a tangible effect on the start that students make in those crucial first few weeks or months of university,” he said.

“For this reason, we hope that these findings prompt a thoughtful and considered response from a wide range of parties – universities, schools, policymakers and accommodation providers alike – to consider the ways in which, working together, we can help young people to get the most out of their time at university.”

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Reader's comments (2)

If students want more contact time, why do so few of them turn up the 'too few' Lectures and seminars provided in the first place. Across the sector, 50% or less attendance is commonplace. Too many students are led to think that they will be given a (good) degree quid pro quo in exchange for their fees, without making any effort or taking any responsibility for their university education. Their attitude and sense of automatic entitlement is appalling.
Students are supposed to 'read' for a degree. This involves significant time spent in autonomous (albeit well-supported) engagement with a subject. Without such autonomous engagement, students run the risk of being passive learners. School and University are rather different stages of educational life. University students should be helped to work in a way that over time demands and imparts (through practice) increasing levels of independence and sophistication in relation to research, analysis and argumentation. Studying a discipline is in large part about the acquisition of mental skills and brain habits that enable a person to succeed in that discipline while gaining sufficiently useful transferable skills. No amount of sitting in lectures is likely to train a mind to the level required. And as PeteinBlack says, it is interesting that in any case, students often skip lectures—even with really engaging, exciting and innovative lecturers. You can't just buy a degree as if one is buying a product or even an experience. A degree is hard work and should be—and it should involve time with actual materials—whether digital or in hardback form or whatever form they come in—that demand the development of the student so that when they leave University, they are independent, critical, capable and confident learners. If I had my way, lectures would never be exercises in mere informatics. They would present a provocative argument—one throwing the students into questions and uncertainties, safely, rather than giving them the false security of passivity, handouts and educational consumerism.

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