Large variations in student workload a cause for concern

The 2013 Student Academic Experience survey reveals large variations in the total workload for students with some working less than half the hours of other students.

Produced jointly by Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the 2013 Student Academic Experience survey, reveals students at some universities study for an average of just 20 hours a week in some subjects, whereas others are working for 40 hours or more. The total student workload averages 30 hours a week – 25% less than official guidelines – raising questions over standards and whether students are being pushed hard enough.

The survey also confirms differences revealed in earlier surveys in the amount and type of contact time students are receiving. Some students receive as much as double the amount of contact hours compared to students studying the same subject at other institutions with, for example, contact time for students studying mathematics varying between 13 and 22 hours. In many cases those with low contact hours compensate for this with more private study – in some they do not.

Students receiving up to nine contact hours a week are three times more likely to say they don’t think their course is value for money (30%), compared to those receiving between 15 and 24 hours a week (10%). The majority nevertheless thought that their course did represent value for money and were satisfied with the amount of contact they received.

Since the first HEPI Student Academic Experience survey in 2006, contact hours have risen by only 20 minutes per week to an average of 14 hours across all institutions.   Over the same period there has been a nine-fold increase in tuition fees at English Institutions. Three in ten (29%) first year students at English universities now say they don’t think their course offers value for money.

Nearly nine in ten (87%) surveyed said their course was good quality, yet over half (58%) told us their course had been worse than expected in some respects.  A third of students (32%) said they might have chosen a different course if they had known more about the academic experience, with a fifth of students (21%) saying that information from universities was vague and one in ten (9%) that it was misleading.

Other key findings in the 2013 Student Academic Experience survey include:

>               There has been an increase in the amount of private study students put in – from an average of 12 hours 48 minutes in 2006 to 14 hours and eight minutes in 2013;

>               Small group teaching is important to students – two thirds (65%) say they gain a lot from learning in groups of up to five students; and

>               Students at Russell Group universities and specialist institutions received more contact in small groups; however small group teaching was more likely to be led by non-academic staff, whereas at newer, post-92 universities it was more likely to be led by academic staff.

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said:

“With an increasingly competitive higher education sector, and soaring tuition fees, it has never been more important for prospective students to get as much information as possible to help them make the right choice.

“There must be an investigation into the huge variations in the academic experience that we have revealed, and more transparency to ensure students can get the information they need.”

HEPI’s Director, Bahram Bekhradnia, said:

“Universities are under increasing pressure to deliver – and be seen to deliver – value for money now that students are paying substantially higher fees.  However, it is important to remember that, although students pay more and might expect to receive more for their money, for the most part universities are no better off as increased student fees are balanced by a reduced government grant.

“Our surveys consistently show the large variation between those universities that require the most and the least workload in any one subject and raises again the question about the comparability of standards between these institutions.  It is unlikely that students, studying for on average less than half the time studied by other students on the same subject, will achieve the same outcomes.”

Notes to editors:

1               The full survey results, published to coincide with HEPI’s Spring Conference on Wednesday 15th May, are available at:

2               The HEPI Spring Conference will focus on the impact of the Government’s Higher Education policy on university admissions and the student learning experience.

3               Which? University is a free and independent website to help students make more informed decisions about higher education, featuring more than 30,000 courses and 281 universities and colleges to search and compare. We bring together facts and statistics from official sources including UCAS, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the National Student Survey and Destination of Leavers of Higher Education survey and combine it with real-life insight from students and the unbiased, expert analysis you’d expect from Which?.

4               The calculation of average workload is based on the average total workload of 30 hours per week and assumes a 29 week academic year. The QAA’s Credit Framework assumes 10 hours notional learning for every credit, roughly 1,2000 hours for each academic year, whereas students in our survey were working for an average of under 900 hours.

5               Which? and HEPI commissioned independent research agency, Youthsight, to conduct a survey of 17,090 full-time undergraduate students in their first, second, third and fourth years atUK institutions. The fieldwork took place between the 26 February and21 March 2013. Youthsight is powered by the 115,000 members of the OpinionPanel Community, theUK’s largest and best recruited youth, student and young professional panel.

Data analysed at a subject level and above was weighted to ensure the sample was representative by gender, year of study, broad subject area and institution type (Russell Group, Pre-92, Post-92 / specialist).

This is the fifth time this survey has been conducted since 2006. With a combined sample of 26,000 students from the 2013 and 2012 surveys, we have been able to compare the experience of students studying the same subject at one university against another. It also includes the experiences of 3rd and 4th year students for the first time, as well as the experiences of students at institutions inScotland,WalesandNorthern Ireland.

6               HEPI is theUK’s only independent think tank devoted exclusively to higher education. Founded in 2002, HEPI has built up a strong reputation for robust and objective policy analysis and advice across a whole range of higher education issues. Its mission is to improve higher education in theUK by creating a better informed policy environment – informed by research and analysis, as well as drawing on experiences from other countries.

7               Which? is calling for:

>               Better information about academic study: Prospective students should be able to compare the amount and type of scheduled contact time they receive, as well as the amount of private study they will be expected to do. We want the Government to ensure that the Key Information Set (KIS) includes this information as soon as possible. In a separate snapshot study[1], Which? found that only two out of 20 institutions’ websites provided information on the total number of contact hours per week, and even this was not broken down by lectures or tutorials.

>               Investigation into variability in study time: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should investigate differences in the total study time that students are engaging in on different courses, and the implications for the UK Credit Framework.

[1] Which? University reviewed 20 institutions prospectus and course page on their website for English degrees in March 2013. We assessed whether institutions had information on the number of lectures and tutorials, size of teaching groups, amount of private study required, and who led the teaching – in particular whether this was academics or research assistants.


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