Leading article: Troubled times for universities

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The Independent Online

This week's report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank, showing how little teaching and study time English students get, makes for sober reading. A student at an English university typically puts in 25-and-a-half hours a week of lectures, tutorials and private study, compared with 30 in Holland or Germany, or 35 in France. Anyone with a son or daughter who has studied a humanities degree at a British university knows how little work they can get away with – and how rarely they are taught by a qualified academic as opposed to a postgraduate. These are serious matters, as HEPI's director, Bahram Bekhradnia, says.

When home students are paying top-up fees of more than £3,000 a year and overseas students are paying anything from £6,000 to £16,000 for a one-year Masters, it is understandable that they are going to be concerned about what they get for this.

The HEPI study found that 27 per cent of overseas students felt that their degrees did not offer value for money.

Another piece of research, to be published by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, shows that overseas students find it more difficult to make friends at UK universities than they do with home students at universities abroad.

We need to be worried about such findings. British universities depend upon overseas students for their funding. The latest statistics show that we are losing our relative position in the international student marketplace to countries like Australia, which charge less and give overseas students a better welcome.

In response, Universities UK says that the length of study doesn't tell you anything about the quality of a degree. And the higher education minister, Bill Rammell, asserts that what really matters is outcomes, and that we do well by our graduates because of high completion rates and good graduate salaries. He may have a point. But length of study must make some difference, and perception must also matter. British universities need to take a long, hard look at themselves. If they don't, they may find they lose out over the long term in the global education market.

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