/ Money, Parenting

Are uni students getting value for money?

A student reading in a library

Annual university tuition fees have trebled from £3,000 to £9,000 and students are under pressure to choose the right course. We’ve found that variations in student workload make it hard for them to compare.

Produced jointly by Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the 2013 Student Academic Survey analysed the experiences of 26,000 full-time undergraduates. The survey found considerable variation in students’ academic experience, even within the same subjects.

While some students’ total workloads (including scheduled teaching plus private study) were less than 20 hours per week, others were working for more than 40. The average workload is 30 hours a week – 25% less than official guidelines – raising questions over standards and whether students are being pushed hard enough.

Since the first HEPI Student Academic Experience survey in 2006, student 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.

How much teaching time is enough?

There are also variations in the amount and type of contact students receive. For instance, someone studying mathematics could expect to receive anywhere between 13-22 hours per week in scheduled teaching. And within this, the amount of small-group teaching could also vary considerably.

Students getting up to nine hours of contact per week were three times more likely to say they don’t think their course offers value for money (30%), compared to those receiving between 15-24 hours per week (10%). One third of students said that they may have chosen a different course if they knew then what they do now.

This makes it all the more important that prospective students can access accurate information on what they can expect to receive from their academic experience, particularly because expectations have an impact on satisfaction.

Lending students a helping hand

We’ve created a ‘contact hours comparison’ tool on our Which? University website, enabling students to compare student contact hours and class sizes across different universities and subjects.

In a snapshot study, we found that only two out of 20 institutions’ websites provided information on the total number of contact hours per week and, even then, it wasn’t broken down by lectures and tutorials. Universities should make sure they are making this information easily accessible.

One fifth of the students we surveyed said that information provided by universities was vague and one in ten said it was misleading. So, we also think that the government should make it compulsory for this information to be provided in an easy-to-compare format via the Key Information Set.

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.

As a current student or recent graduate, what is or was your academic experience like at uni? If you’re helping to support someone through uni – do you think students are getting value for money? If you work in the sector, do you think universities need to make more teaching information available?

Do you think today's university degrees are good value for money?

No (68%, 260 Votes)

I'm not sure (19%, 73 Votes)

Yes (12%, 47 Votes)

Total Voters: 380

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It is strictly incorrect to state “Annual university tuition fees have trebled from £3,000 to £9,000”. This is the cost to those benefitting (or not) from a degree, deferred to the future. The tutition fees received, per student, by the universities have not trebled, and at best have remained static. There is no more usable money per student now than their was before, there has just been a change in funding regime that is changing student awareness of their education and consequently the university sector’s attitude to students. This is a good thing for all concerned.

Undergraduate students should be working 40 hours per week, for 30 weeks per year, on their studies as a sensible guideline. Many will be putting in much more than this and gaining a better degree because of it. Now that fees are no longer dependent on the subject area (sciences traditionally high, humanities lower), and students are aware of some of the education cost, then there is now consumer pressure for improvement. Transparency of information is to be welcomed.

As with _any_ metric or target, consumers need to be aware that (a) games will be played with the numbers, and (b) those setting the metric system are not aware of the complexity of the university sector and often fail to correctly quantify university offerings. Take a broad look across lots of data from as many sources as possible, then do your own research by visiting before choosing your degree course.

When I was at university there was a substantial disparity in the formal teaching hours between different disciplines – engineering was a heavy programme, social sciences for example much less. However it was expected that students would have the self-discipline to study on their own.

I wonder now with the proliferation of universities whether there are sufficient well-motivated lecturers to provide this teaching effectively. My childrens’ experience of college was of poor teaching, badly prepared, and frequent absence of scheduled lecturers. They made up for this by working on their own account – but some of course did not and their time was wasted.

Anne Booth says:
15 May 2013

Part of the problem is that there are not enough permanent lecturers employed and the universities are too keen to get student numbers up without investing in staff and resources to deal with this. Permanent, well qualified and motivated lecturers are vastly overworked so that they cannot physically deliver their best, and when the problem is too much for even them to handle, sessional lecturers are drafted in, often at very short notice, and told to take up the slack.

Permanent and sessional lecturers alike are told to teach v large groups (much larger than they themselves were taught in) and tutorial time becomes limited or even abolished altogether.

Although universities specify minimum entrance requirements for their courses, these can be bypassed by the clearing system; in some universities, in a teaching group of 20 upwards English students, there can be excellent students and very poor ones and this affects the quality of debate and the way the lecturer can teach. Even if the weakest students at universities are asked to leave at the end of the first year the college has cynically overlooked their low grades, taken their fees, the more able students have had less than stimulating seminars, and the students asked to leave have been exploited, badly advised and feel they have failed.

The last minute acceptance of students on to courses also affects resources – I have taught as a sessional lecturer and found that there were not enough books and articles in the library for the number of students who needed them – yet all the students were paying the same fees.

Sessional & permanent lecturers alike are asked at short notice to teach courses in areas they are not expert in. They remain highly qualified in their own areas, but this is not necessarily where they are used when more students have been taken on than there are teachers to teach.

I am very dubious about the term ‘peer-led learning’ – this, to me, is a sign that there are not enough staff to teach in small group seminars and one to one tutorials.

“Even if the weakest students at universities are asked to leave at the end of the first year the college has cynically overlooked their low grades, taken their fees,…”

Perhaps a bigger motivation for reduction of drop-out rates is that this is one of the metrics used in league tables, and league table position is very valuable at many funding levels. Underperforming students absorb a very disproportionate amount of staff time that can only come at the expense of other students.

Student support can be as important as contact time, particularly for those who don’t always cope well. Information about student support will be hard to find but existing students and recent graduates can provide a useful insight.

Student support does not have to be face-to-face. Universities now use custom-designed websites called virtual learning environments. Some lecturers just use these to distribute documents but they can be used to provide very good support for students. This can be very helpful for those who need help but don’t like asking busy lecturers.

Universities have always relied on peer support, where students work with each other. It is a fact of life that many students do paid work during the semester. Thanks to that and the fact that most students have their own laptop or access to one, the amount of time spent on campus is less. Before I retired, I made extensive use of online support for a module with 250 students. Much of that support came from me and another lecturer, but some of the students were active on discussion boards.

Teaching is moving on. We started off with students copying from blackboards and most students are now confronted with endless PowerPoint slides. It’s time to move on to facilitating learning in other ways, but what we need is evolution and not revolution.

PowerPoint was a dreadful tool for many – used with gimmicky graphics. flying letters, and often just putting on screen the exact words they were speaking. I remember making photographic slides which illustrated my lectures – backing up the text with pictures, diagrams etc. So much easier to do with PowerPoint, but the photo method required much more thought and effort because it was more time consuming and therefore it was done more effectively.
Evolution not revolution – the government could do well to work to that rule. So much of what goes wrong is because they feel complete change is necessary, but without recognising that systems are complex and have grown in particular ways for (often) sensible reasons.

Many lecturers use PowerPoint as a replacement for slides and some do use the animation that we both hate, but there are positive aspects. Errors can be corrected in seconds and selective use of animation can be very useful, for example in diagrams that show the course of a reaction at molecular level. Most of us regard YouTube videos as pure entertainment, but short videos can have a very useful role in education at all levels.

I once had a student with a rare form of colour blindness and was able to easily change the text and background colours to help him, without creating a problem for others. Simple black on white is best avoided for the many dyslexic students who are able to benefit from higher education these days.

Value for Money? What do students go to university for?. If it is to increase their earning potential, then the arithmetic seems fairly straightforward (OK, a bit simplistic):
– if they are able to get a job, they can leave school at 16 and earn say £65k total in the 5 years a student going to university would take to reach graduation. The student would pay £27k in fees. So at that stage the student is around £90k worse off. In their 44 years working life they need to earn around £2500 a year more on average than the school-leaver. I’d suggest that financially, choosing a sensible course and being diligent, makes University in principle good value.
However, University should offer more than that – social development, interacting with a wide variety of people, the discipline of thinking for ones self, and learning new interests. Much is down to the ability of the individual to take advantage of the opportunities. So for the right type of person, it must be good value. It would be nice to provide it free of charge, but when times are hard and the rewards are ahead, I think it is good value.

I see a university degree as far more than a way to earn more money. It can open the door to a wider range of careers and the opportunity to do something you enjoy and find rewarding. With so many graduates, it is important to aim for a good degree if the time and money spent at university is to be worthwhile.

‘…..choosing a sensible course and….’

The most intelligent or clever ones in my time who did Biology 6th Form
tend to go for Medicine and highers but those doing Maths tend to do a science
degree and highers, architecture, engineering in all its branches OR wd indeed enter the
legal profession…. saw a rather old prof with a DSc(Oxon) is still around
but the non-honorary DCL, LLD, DSc, ScD, D Litt or Litt D recipients
seem to be seeing less of…. most end up with the PhD at best.

Karina says:
16 May 2013

If students want one to one support, then they should consider HE in FE institutions who charge a fraction of the cost and provide better support structures than the larger institutions. More mature students and specialist subject students like creative arts are catching on to these fantastic institutions and some that have come from larger institutions find the open door policy found In HE in FE institutions. I graduate this year from a HE in FE institution and to be honest I think the larger institutions who charge the most and have the most funding need to take a leaf out of the smaller partnership colleges books and see how they provide a better service than some of the top institutions.

Thanks very much for your comments – we’ve included some in this week’s comment round-up: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/your-view-students-university-value-for-money-hepi/

Gina J says:
22 May 2013

‘Uni’ The very term shows the contempt felt for the organisations. If you go to a jumped up college with spurious ‘professors’. you get what can be expected. At a huge cost. The devaluation of higher education is just another symptom of a cheap society.