Should Britain’s Universities Bump Up Contact Hours?

Photo by Tra Nguyen on Unsplash

Here we are again, then. The university conundrum.

The Higher Education Policy Institute’s recent report on the wellbeing of the UK’s students has some positive findings: 2018 saw a reversal of the five-year downward trend in student satisfaction and value for money. Hurray! Right?

Not quite. The report shows a strong correlation between student dissatisfaction and courses with a low workload, and vice versa; those studying more intensive courses, such as medicine, are considerably more satisfied, with 71% reporting a happiness with their choice of course. The largest group to consider their university of poor value for money was, by far, those with only 0-9 contact hours per week – 35% of them, to be specific.

Such data opens up the clear faults in Britain’s university funding system: students are charged £9,250 per year, irrespective of whichever course they choose to study or whichever institution they choose to study this at. An equalised fee naturally creates the impression that university education is a homogeneous experience – wherever you go, you’ll get the same value for money and the same absolutely wonderful experience. But this is inherently false.

Whether we consider the equation in terms of teaching, or graduate earnings, or career prospects, or cost of facilities, the truth is that no degree is the same. From this perspective, it seems sensible to pursue a means-tested fees system, but this would likely have damaging ramifications, further entrenching class divides into our education system and leaving smaller, poorer universities out to dry. Just imagine how much Oxbridge would charge.

Surely, then, given the apparent notability of the contact hours issue from these statistics (so much so that BBC News ran with it as their headline), increasing them should be a uniting cause to rally around. The discrepancy in contact hours between humanities and STEM subjects is well-known, with the former falling on the lower end of the scale. It is truly bizarre and, in some cases, offensive, that such a divide exists between university courses, with some students reaping wonderful academic benefits whilst others receive zilch.

But even then, broadly, contact hours do not appear to be a dividing issue (that being said, students with fewer are, by virtue of numeracy, a minority). In a follow-up question, when asked why their institution is “poor” value for money, 42% of respondents cited the lack of contact hours – but 55% opted for teaching quality. On the matter of where universities should funnel their resources to, contact hours was ranked eighth with 32%, compared with a three-way-tie of 41% for improving course content, facilities, and teacher training.

These statistics highlight an important point to make: whilst contact hours are an important and atrocious issue, there is little point in bumping them up if the content, or the teaching, is not there to make it worthwhile. Perhaps a more comprehensive review is needed, which rebalances the workload between independent and group/lecture-based study to one with a little more pragmatism, taking into account what students can realistically achieve. Independent study is vitally important – perhaps the most important skill to learn at university – but it is more than somewhat unfair to ask students to fork out thousands upon thousands of pounds for independent study. And to fund these improvements in course content, facilities and teacher training? Well, we curb excessive, fattening vice-chancellor pay.

At least, let us resolve the inequality in content between courses. Nobody wants to feel as if others are getting more bang for their buck, a sentiment which merely fosters resentment towards the very institution of university. What the government and universities should be doing is making higher education as thriving and as worthwhile an environment as possible. A jaded generation helps nobody, after all.