“Value for money” in university undergraduate courses

When students and their parents talk to me about universities, many express concern about the amount of “contact time” at different universities and on different courses – something that those with one or two years’ experience as consumers (and fee payers!) are not slow to tell others about. As a rule, courses such as medicine, engineering, the creative arts and the sciences tend to have a very high taught component, involving as they do large amounts of “fixed” knowledge and skills combined with practical classes plus seminars or tutorials combined with work-based experience. But in the humanities and in subjects such as business and social studies things tend to be more flexible, and students often find themselves with a large amount of “free” time – which is intended to be anything but, of course. It is this “non-contact” time that concerns people, as they see it as having little or no value. Whilst this may be a true assessment in some cases, it is not universal, as the most recent HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey [1] shows.

The 2017 edition of this annual survey was based on a sample of just over 14,000 full-time undergraduate students who completed a survey instrument in the spring of 2017. The self-reported workload of students looks like this:

Value for money Chart 1

Whilst medics, vets and those studying allied subjects have the highest contact hours, they spend most of their time in small teaching groups. Almost certainly this contributes to the fact that a large proportion of students reading these subjects describe their courses as providing “good or very good value for money”. By contrast, students of social studies and business & administrative studies tend not to view their courses as value for money. Almost certainly this is a reflection the fact that they spend a good proportion of their limited contact time in big teaching groups. Lawyers fall somewhere in the middle, with large teaching groups but also being around the average in describing their courses in terms of value for money – an expectation of future earnings, perhaps? (And this may be true of the medics, vets and dentists too, of course.)

There is one insight in the survey that suggests that the proportion of contact time is not a uni-dimensional factor, however. For the first time, students from “alternative providers” (institutions which receive no direct annual public funding, like the recently-founded New College of the Humanities for example) were included in the 2017 survey.

Value for money Chart 2

On every measure these students rate their satisfaction with their courses more highly than do fellow students at conventional institutions. This is despite the fact that their weekly contact hours are slightly less (11.92 hours) than those of students at conventional institutions (12.14 hours). The fact that 26% of students at alternative providers say that “all teaching staff motivated [me] to do [my] best work” compared to just 15% of students at conventional institutions seems to suggest something about teaching quality here – it will be interesting to compare these figures with the 2018 survey, due shortly.

The enormous amount of information available about universities and courses in the UK makes it possible to gain deep insights into very many aspects of study – academic, pastoral, social and even future earnings & employment. Based on more than 25 years’ experience in Russell Group universities in the UK as an academic researcher, teacher, examiner and consultant, it is clear that accessing, interpreting and understanding the right data delivers better decisions and optimum outcomes.

Reference: [1] Neeves, J. and Hillman, N. (2017) 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey. York: Higher Education Academy.




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