Are students getting value for money?

Moodle and Blackboard

By Pamela Head,

Some undergraduates – paying £9,000 a year from September 2012 onwards – get fewer than half the hours of lectures, seminars, tutorials and lab time than other students studying the same subject at a different university, Unistats figures reveal.

Of course, the discrepancy isn’t just across the same subject at different universities, where it could be argued that, as you’re at a different university and potentially paying different fees, a variance could be expected.

It’s also across different subjects at the same university, where you would expect to receive the same standard of teaching as people you’re living with.

English students, on average, get around eight contact hours per week. The rest of the time, they’re expected to use their time for personal study, reading books and making notes.

By comparison, Science students have an average of 20 to 28 contact hours a week; three times more.

When I spoke to students at the University of Kent, I discovered that contact hours were the number one thing that rankled them.

Harriet Corey Woollam, a 19-year-old Drama and Theatre Studies student, said: “I’m paying £9,000 a year for two days in university! If I had more contact hours or classes then it may have been worth it but for a drama student it’s pointless. I’m getting into debt just to go to the gym everyday or sit around doing a bit of reading.”

Jon Tarrant, 21, studying Multimedia Technology and Design, has gone one step further: “I have 12 contact hours a week. It works out at £19 for each hour, half of which aren’t taught and are instead workshops where we work off our own back.”

A poll of more than 9,000 students by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students have almost no extra time with their lecturers than they did six years ago, despite paying three times more.

The first Student Experience Report 2012 conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) highlights this fact further: “84.2% of students either agreed or strongly agreed that contact hours directly improves the quality of their learning experience/course.”
So what’s the answer? Universities feel they cannot offer more contact hours to increase value for money because the funds just aren’t there.

As an English graduate, I can’t even honestly say that more contact hours would have helped me with my degree either. A lot of my time was spent reading alone in my room, talking to myself or to the characters in the stories.

Maybe the only answer is to try and alter the way we think about contact hours. Though my degree only had an average of six hours a week, I also had a lot more reading to get through.

If I were in classes as much as my Science friends, would I have managed it every week? Probably not. Would I have felt engaged with the texts? Probably not. Would my friends studying Science cope with their hands on, fact-packed, lab-based courses with fewer hours? Probably not.

It’s possible that in the wake of tuition fees and the need to feel that we’re getting value for money in the midst of a recession, we’re focusing too much on what we think we should be getting instead of what we need to do our degrees.