“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 varying amounts 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 recent Student Academic Experience Survey  shows.
The 2019 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 2019. When asked to rate their course in terms of value for money, 41% of respondents answered good/very good (up from 35% two years ago) while 29% answered poor/very poor (down from 34% in the same period). Satisfied students describe teaching quality, course content and good campus facilities and environment as the main factors influencing their positive view of the value of their course. Students who are dissatisfied with their course give cost (fees) as the overwhelming reason for this, a clear indication that poor experience places the money paid for it firmly in the forefront of one’s mind. After cost, the main factor linked to perceptions of poor value is contact time/workload.
Students with workloads of between 30 and 39 hours a week are overwhelmingly happy with their choice of courses. By contrast, students working less than 10 hours a week are highly likely to say that they would have made another choice, with nearly one quarter saying that they would have chosen not to enter Higher Education directly. Just under one in three students (31%) say that they have had less teaching than they expected, with around the same number (32%) saying that there was too little contact with staff.
Elsewhere in the survey, students do not rate the teaching at Russell Group universities as any better or worse than the teaching at other institutions. However, students from Russell Group universities tend to perceive their courses as offering better value for money than students from other institutions. This suggests that factors such as facilities and campus environment (and maybe even reputation) are contributing to this perception.
In the 2017 survey, students from “alternative providers” (institutions which receive no direct annual public funding) were included for the first time. Data from the last three years suggests that students from these institutions are very positive indeed about their experience.
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 not significantly different (13.58 hours) to those of students at conventional institutions (13.25 hours). The fact that 23% of students at alternative providers say that “all teaching staff motivated [me] to do [my] best work” compared to just 14% of students at conventional institutions suggests a very strong perception of teaching quality.
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:  Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2019) Student Academic Experience Survey 2019. York: AdvanceHE.
This is an updated version of the article published in 2018 about the 2017 Student Experience Survey.