The University of Oxford has been told by the Quality Assurance Agency to address students’ fears that “excessive” workloads are dragging down educational standards at the prestigious institution.
In its latest review of the university, the QAA quotes Oxford undergraduates as saying that “rigour is lost to excessive workloads” and that there is “little parity across the colleges” on the number of tutorials and assignments that a student must complete.
The watchdog recommends that student workload, which at the moment is ultimately at the discretion of individual tutors at Oxford, should become the subject of institution-wide guidance for the first time.
Oxford students have long been known to be among the hardest working in the UK, with analysis conducted by Times Higher Education in 2013 suggesting that undergraduates on many courses at the institution were dedicating more than 40 hours a week to their studies, on average, double what their peers at other universities might do.
The QAA review says that, while university guidance on approval of new courses and major changes to existing ones includes a requirement to consider student workload, it “stops short of prescribing it in terms of number of teaching hours and volume of assessment, even if only maxima and minima”, leaving open the possibility of significant variation between colleges and tutors.
Undergraduates told the review that their workloads were a “serious concern” and that, when they had complained to their department, they “had been told that it was a college matter”.
“As a result, students believe that the system is unreceptive to complaints about variability,” the QAA’s report adds.
The review says that the university, as the awarding body, has ultimate responsibility for learning and teaching; and that it should therefore “address the problem of uneven workload” by providing “explicit guidance to enable a consistent approach” across the institution.
Cat Jones, vice-president for access and academic affairs at the Oxford University Student Union, said that workload was “definitely a problem” on certain courses, with some students working in excess of 50 or 60 hours a week.
“There are instances where students are set three essays in one week; at those levels, that’s clearly at the detriment of rigour, welfare and pedagogy,” she said. “At that point, you are very much an essay machine; you are meeting deadlines rather than having time to learn and to reflect on what you are meant to be learning.”
The 2013 THE analysis, based on a survey conducted by Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute, found that Oxford students taking courses in historical and philosophical studies spent an average of 41 hours a week studying, compared with 19.3 at Northumbria University, while in biological sciences, Oxford students’ average workload of 40.3 hours compared with 20.2 hours at the University of Portsmouth.
Overall, the QAA review concluded that all areas of higher education at Oxford met required standards, and it identified several areas of good practice.
A university spokesman said: “We are already at work on the report’s three recommendations, including the provision of more information about the teaching patterns that students can expect on each course. The QAA commends Oxford on the quality of its student representation on educational matters, and we will use these strong links to discuss and respond to particular workload concerns.”