Bahram Bekhradnia has surveyed more than 100,000 university students since 2006. He found the average British student spends less than 30 hours a week studying.
That’s less than the average student in Europe and only three quarters of the study time expected for a degree course in the UK.
But the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute isn’t blaming the students. He says staff are letting students off so they can concentrate on their research.
“What I’m suggesting - and it’s not a literal statement, but it’s a simile – is that the way staff do this is by saying to the students effectively, we won’t make very many demands on you if you don’t detract us too much from our research.”
Mr Bekhradinia is quick to point out – he’s not suggesting the teaching standard in British universities is poor. He’s simply pointing to a trade-off between students and staff that let’s teachers get on with their research.
“What we do know is that research in this country is outstanding. It’s probably the best in the world. If you look at the citation rates, research in this country is the best in the world even better than the United States. What I’m saying is that, that takes staff time, it takes staff effort to do the research. Staff student ratios have been getting worse actually, it’s not as if there’s more staff doing more research, it’s just the existing staff are doing more research - so something has to give.”
That was certainly the experience of James Knights. He recently completed a Masters course at Cambridge University, but he wasn’t impressed.
“That seemed to be the problem in my experience. A lot of the lecturers didn’t seem that engaged with teaching. Although they’re required contractually to teach a couple of classes or whatever it’s not what they’re interested in doing. They’re there as researchers and they’re interested in putting out papers.”
He says Masters students were seen as cash cows. With each course costing thousands of pounds, the very low number of contact hours made it poor value for money.
“The thing is it’s not really that expensive to hold a tutorial. You can pay a PhD student 100 quid to pay a class of 20 people. So the cost of actually running those lessons isn’t that much. I think it’s just a lot of the lecturers just seem too lazy to actually set tutes and stuff like that.”
Bahram Bekhradnia says the focus on research could explain why so many students in Britain seem to do less work than their peers in Europe. He also points to surveys of EU students who come to Britain as part of university exchange programmes. More than a third of those said studying in England was easier than studying at home. Mr Bekhradnia says that shows some students on the Continent are working much harder for a similar qualification.
“Compared to the United States where they have the National Survey of Student Engagement, it seems that students in this country work a very similar amount of time. Compared with most countries in Europe, the differences vary greatly. In some they work really quite a lot more than they do in this country. It’s not just a question of how many hours they work in the week either, very often their degrees are longer, take longer in length than our degrees in this country. So, all in all, I think it’s reason to conclude, we have to at least ask the questions whether degree standards are as high in this country as in many other countries.”
And while there seems to be vast differences between the university experience of British students and their European counterparts, Mr Bekhradnia is more worried about the discrepancies between the UK’s own 130 universities.
“That’s something I think I’m most concerned about. That what we find is that you can be doing say history or engineering in one university and be putting in half the amount of effort as a student at another university doing the same subject.”
Cambridge graduate James Knights says students are often taken by surprise when their university experience doesn’t meet their expectations. He says university tables shouldn’t place so much weight on research.
“The problem is a lot of these global rankings, they’re mostly related to research output so people have these impressions of these universities like Oxford and Cambridge when a lot of that doesn’t really reflect the student experience at all.”
Last week, the president and provost of University College London Michael Arthur, told his academics the quality of their teaching must improve. He’s reforming UCL with the aim of making teaching just as important – and of the same quality – as the institution’s award winning research.