Bahram Bekhradnia: Should humanities students work harder?

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The Independent Online

Earlier this week, the Higher Education Policy Institute published ground-breaking research that, for the first time, shows what students actually do at university. We surveyed 15,000 students about their university life, including how many lessons (lectures, seminars and so on) they attend each week, how many hours of private study they undertake, how much paid work they do, and how satisfied they are with their experiences.

Some of the press interest, understandably, has focused on the differences we reported between universities in the same subject. Some of the universities concerned - also understandably - defended themselves by pointing to the relatively small number of respondents in the analysis (although, with an average of 25 respondents in each subject at each university, they should be careful not to overstate their methodological objections).

But, whatever their public reaction, I hope that these findings will cause university leaders to look hard at all of their provision. We have given them a benchmark against which to measure what they offer in different subjects. More important, we have given students a benchmark as well, to judge whether they are getting what others get in the same subject.

One of the most striking - but unsurprising - findings was about the differences between subjects. We have always known that science students spend more time attending classes than humanities students. This survey confirms that. But even when private study is added, there are very large differences between subjects - with poor old media studies once again in the firing line. This is not a swipe at media studies, but the finding that a degree can be obtained with such different levels of effort does raise questions about what it means to have a degree from an English university. The experiences - and the knowledge, presumably - of the students concerned will be very different. The differences are even more interesting in view of the relationship - or the apparent lack of it - that the survey shows between the class of degree awarded, the ability of students (as measured by Ucas scores) and the amount of work they have done to get their degree.

Of course, it is true that the pedagogic approaches of different subjects vary - even within the subject, one university will take a different approach to another. Some approaches require more formal teaching and others more self-directed study. But we have been able to add the two together and look at total effort, and it is the discrepancy in total effort that is surprising.

These are difficult questions, and they need to be addressed seriously. There may be perfectly good explanations for the differences, but the report requires more than a knee-jerk defensive reaction. It is to the credit of the Higher Education Academy that it supported this survey. I am sure it will also be in the lead in considering some of the issues raised.

One of the reasons for the study was the belief that, as students pay more for their higher education, they will become more demanding about what they get for their money. We have created a baseline against which we will be able to monitor whether, as time goes on and students pay more, universities are giving them more for their money.

It is clear from the reaction to the survey that there is a real appetite for information about what universities provide at course level. Given the general - and welcome - trend towards giving students more information about quality, and so on, the provision of information about how much teaching is provided appears to be a real gap. This is particularly so if students are to be required to sign contracts about the amount of work they will do. A contract is a two-way matter. If universities do not provide this information themselves, then others - less objective than HEPI - will step in and fill the gap.

When asked whether their courses represented value for money, UK and EU students - who were at that time paying only £1,000 or so - were fairly positive. But 30 per cent of overseas students - who were paying many times more - were dissatisfied with the value for money of their courses.

That is worrying, given the extent to which some universities depend on overseas students for their financial health. Unless universities can satisfy their overseas students, that flow of cash may slow. It is also worrying that home and EU students may increasingly question the value they get as they pay more for their courses.

This study has raised important questions. It does not purport to provide the answers, but the higher education sector will be doing itself a disservice if it does not treat the questions seriously and address the issues raised.

The writer is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute