Another boring lecture...

British universities face a shock this week as The Independent reveals the results of an exclusive survey of students' views of teaching. Lucy Hodges reports on some worrying levels of dissatisfaction

Friday 03 April 2009 14:30

The news that one-quarter of students at universities in the United Kingdom are dissatisfied with their teaching, and that 27 per cent are falling asleep in lectures should be a wake-up call to vice-chancellors.

The news that one-quarter of students at universities in the United Kingdom are dissatisfied with their teaching, and that 27 per cent are falling asleep in lectures should be a wake-up call to vice-chancellors.

It has certainly surprised Bahram Bekhradnia, the head of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank. "That's a high figure," he says. "At the University of California in the United States the overall level of satisfaction with the academic side is 85 per cent."

Research carried out for EDUCATION by OpinionpanelResearch in the past few weeks shows that 73 per cent of British students feel that the teaching on their course is the same or better than they had expected. Twenty-five per cent think it is worse than they expected. (Two per cent didn't know.) And the figure applies to both new and old universities. It gives support to concerns that teaching is suffering as universities tighten their belts to make ends meet, cramming in more and more students without laying on more staff. "I am a bit gloomy about the quality of what students are getting now and that makes me worried about overseas students," says Bekhradnia. What suffers is the amount of contact time that students have with staff. Some prestigious universities give no more than six hours of contact time to first-year undergraduates.

British universities should be worried, because they are now part of a global higher education marketplace in which students are paying increasingly large sums for their degree courses. Top-up fees will concentrate minds further. Overseas students already have to pay large sums for a British degree - £4,000 to £6,000 a year is normal - and there are signs that they are not always happy with the attention that they receive.

The survey, based on 1,377 online interviews with students at 96 universities in the UK, was carried out between 5 and 12 of August this year. To make it representative, the panel was weighted for gender, year of study and university type.

It is thought to be one of the first polls carried out on current students and their views of teaching. Next year an official National Student Survey will be conducted, enabling universities to be ranked for student satisfaction.

The students in The Independent's survey were asked about their learning - whether their course developed their subject knowledge, their problem-solving, team-working and communication skills. They were asked whether their staff were enthusiastic and reliable. On the whole, they were satisfied. "It's a much more positive image of student perception than I expected," says Professor Lee Harvey, who runs the Centre for Research and Evaluation at Sheffield Hallam University.

Students who are disappointed with their teaching are more likely to feel that they are working less hard than at school, the survey shows. Perhaps this is no surprise because students who are stimulated by their teaching are likely to respond by throwing themselves into their work.

Teaching at old universities has traditionally tended to be of the dry and dusty variety. Are students finding this harder to take now that schoolteachers have been forced to become so much better by Ofsted and the Teacher Training Agency?

The students in the dissatisfied group were more likely to be male, to skip lectures, to walk into a lecture late, to eat in a lecture and to send a text message in a lecture. According to the poll, 58 per cent of students said they walked into a lecture late in the last academic year, and a staggering 27 per cent said they had slept during a lecture. That may be because so many of them lead a giddy social life. Perhaps it explains another statistic: 10 per cent confess to attending a lecture when drunk. The survey does not reveal whether the inebriated were recovering from the night before or whether they had had too many pints in the student union bar at lunchtime.

Professor Harvey is amazed that more than a quarter of students are falling asleep in lectures, though he is not surprised that a quarter are dissatisfied with their teaching. That figure corresponds to his own findings in surveys he has carried out of student satisfaction in individual universities, he says.

Of the students who are skipping more than one in five of their lectures, the majority come from old universities. Why is this? It may be that the old universities put less effort into teaching than the new ones because they don't have to bother. Their students are better prepared and know how to pass exams.

Certainly a new university such as Sheffield Hallam has to put more effort into making sure its students don't drop out than an old university such as Edinburgh. One way it does this is by promoting sandwich courses which give students a year in employment. It is also encouraging other forms of learning, according to Simon Brown, who runs a course in business and technology. The university's virtual-learning environment has web-based resources which consist of lecture notes, background information, quizzes and assignment information. But students are bound to be dissatisfied at times, he says. They may not enjoy all aspects of their course but they still need to do them. "I try to make things for my students enjoyable," he says. "But I don't think I can make them happy."

Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, is relatively sanguine. "Universities are about learning how to learn," he says. "I would much rather students spent their time using the learning opportunities available than go to a lecture if that lecture is not going to provide what they need."


Natalie Macdonald, 21, is going into her third year of a maths and management degree at Sheffield University. She attended a comprehensive school in her home town of Reading and says she works much harder at university than she did at school. She isn't surprised at the poll's finding that 27 per cent of students have fallen asleep in a lecture. "I have seen people sleeping in lectures," she says. "I think it's because so many of them start at 9 a.m.

"When I first went to university, I didn't know what to expect because it's a big jump after school. The teaching of maths was really organised, I found. There were lecture notes and slides. The lecture notes are put on the internet before or after every lecture and the lectures enable you to annotate these.

"But we had some really bad management lectures. In those lectures we weren't taught any of the theories or techniques we needed. When students asked anything, they were asked whether they would like to come and take the lecture. It would might have been better if they had. But we had a tutorial once a week with a really good tutor who explained the theories and did group work. Without that, no one would have passed the exam.

"In the second year there was a lecturer who couldn't hold our attention. She found it difficult to explain things in different ways so would end up repeating herself. It wasn't really very good for us. Before the exams she told us which subjects to concentrate on for revision and then said, 'Don't e-mail me and don't come to me for help'. That wasn't helpful for those who didn't understand the theories properly.

"The rest of the teaching was OK. The lecturers were really helpful and happy to give their time to us. The maths teachers were especially enthusiastic about their subject and we had a very good lecturer on operations management."

Michael Fauconnier-Bank, 20, is going into the second year of a degree in philosophy at the London School of Economics. He gained six A-levels at Hampton, an independent school in south London, and is not working as hard as he did at school.

"I am pretty disappointed at the teaching. I thought I would have the freedom to study what I wanted at university. I thought I would be able to pick a topic within the boundaries of the course and research it. But I found the degree regulations are very strict. I am having to study specific courses and modules.

"I have been playing the education system for years now and it's getting a bit tedious. At university you're doing the same thing as you were doing at A-levels, learning to pass the exam.

"The teaching has not been too bad, though certain of the lecturers are more interested in their own research than taking the time out to talk to us. The class discussions have been very good. I found a couple of courses very hard and had to switch out of them. I have certainly gone to sleep in a lecture but that was because I was not getting along with the course material. I couldn't understand what some of the lecturers were talking about."

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