Total studying time at UK universities varies greatly, experts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 August, 2013, 9:47am

There is not much longer to wait. Thousands of Hong Kong students are making the transition from the grind and discipline of secondary school to university. These should be the best years of their lives in academic and social fulfilment, or so they are likely to believe.

Many will travel overseas, with Britain the most popular destination for Hong Kong students. Universities there accepted about 4,000 for undergraduate places last year.

The authors question whether students are being pushed hard enough

Before making their choices, families will scrutinise league tables and listen to sales pitches by recruitment officers and agents. Rankings reflect a perception that a degree from one university does not have the same value as that from another, even though credit frameworks set norms for the study required for the qualification.

The norm in Britain, according to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, is 1,200 hours a year, involving a mix of "scheduled contact hours" with an academic, as in lectures and tutorials, and private study. This benchmark is also international, and shared by Hong Kong's new Use of Credit System.

But the Student Academic Experience Survey 2013, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Which? magazine in Britain, shows that this is not so in reality. On average, students spend 25 per cent less time securing their degrees than the minimum required, putting in just 900 hours a year, or about 29 hours a week during term.

HEPI is concerned about what this means for the reputation of higher education in Britain, and has called for an investigation into the discrepancies between courses, and for universities to give students more information about their courses.

Britain is in the spotlight because it is transparent enough to conduct this survey. It would be useful if there were similar studies elsewhere, including Hong Kong so that internationally mobile students could make comparisons for their decisions.

The study, based on a survey of 26,000 students in 103 institutions, shows vast differences. These are not only between universities, but also within the same subject offered by different institutions. For example, for historical and philosophical studies subjects, students at Cambridge study nearly 45 hours a week, while those at University of Northumbria do 19 hours, and University College London 27 hours.

Business and administration - the most popular subject for Hong Kong students - requires the least effort, with an average of less than 25 hours a week.

There are bound to be differences in the amount of teaching for more factual science subjects compared with humanities that involve more reading, as well as variations reflecting different pedagogical approaches. Many universities emphasise the virtues of independent study, and students in the top universities may attend only a handful of lectures a week.

It is the variation in the total effort that is worrying. The authors question whether students are being pushed hard enough by many institutions, and liken time at university to a part-time job.

Fees in Britain cost at least HK$113,000 a year, not counting rent and living costs. For that, students receive an average of 13 hours and 12 minutes of weekly contact time and about 21/2 hours a term to discuss their work with academics outside of formal teaching settings.

Most students, including international, in the HEPI study indicated they thought their degree courses were good quality. But one-third said they would have chosen a different course or university if they had known then what they do now.

British universities have countered that fees cover other services and facilities beyond teaching, and that quality can't be measured by only time on task. That may be so. But in shopping for degree courses, it is worth looking beyond the league tables to ask about the work involved, and the contact hours.

Many students will relish the lack of pressure, as it leaves them time to invest in their social lives. But they should also focus on the skills and knowledge they want to gain.

Too much party time drains the wallet and the emotions.

Katherine Forestier is director of the consultancy Education Link