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Should a rise in tuition fees mean a rise in contact hours?

18th May 2012

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A poll by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that although tuition fees are set to rise to an all-time high of £9,000 a year, contact hours at universities in Britain have remained exactly the same.

The poll of over 9,000 students found that first and second years have around 13.9 hours of contact hours a week, very little difference to the average 13.7 hours a week found in a survey 6 years ago.

There was also found to be a discrepancy of 0.7 hours between average time in tutorials, seminars and lectures between newer and older universities, sitting at an average of 12.4 and 13.1 respectively, and unsurprisingly, discrepancies were found depending on the course that students were undertaking, with medicine coming out top for contact hours.

The poll did however find a slight rise in the time which undergraduate students spent studying in their own time – a rise from 13.1 hours a week 6 years ago, to 14.4 hours each week today, a possible reason being that as students are forced to pay more for their degree (tuitions fees have gone up from £1,000 in 2006), they are beginning to value it more and work harder for a better result.

As fees treble this may become an even more poignant trend next year, as those who go on to university will have carefully evaluated the financial burden, and be prepared to work hard to get their money’s worth out of their degree.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students commented that students will have ‘increased expectations’ this year, due the increase of fees, and that there is nothing to show that this financial increase is giving students ‘more power’.

However we are left to wonder, would an increase in contact hours actually give students this power, or take it away altogether?

University has always been a place of increased freedom, not only in the sense that for many it is their first move away from home, but also in terms of taking control of your own learning. University teaching is much more individual driven when compared to sixth forms and colleges, and contact hours are undeniably less, but the fees are the response to a decrease in state funding, rather than a shake-up of degree teaching.

I can’t help but wondering if contact hours were increased three-fold, in line with the trebling of fees, if university really would be such a step-up in terms of learning, or whether it would be much the same as A-Levels and other further education qualifications. There is also a focus in most undergraduate degrees on individual research, and this type of learning would simply be impossible in a seminar or lecture based environment.

Employers see a degree as a mark of initiative, and as an indication that a candidate is self-motivated and driven, and if contact hours were to rocket to that of a full-time job, students would have a lot less time to cultivate those sought-after attributes. Reading on a degree is ‘recommended’, and students that come out with a solid degree prove that they have a solid foundation in terms of their ability to work alone off their own backs. Moreover, an increasing number of degrees rely heavily on group work, which is primarily organised by the students themselves, another attractive attribute for potential employers.

However, although an increase in contact hours may not be the way forward for universities, research by YouGov for ‘Uni’s Not for Me’ found only 38% of people thought that a university degree provided a good return on investment, so undoubtedly, something has to change, even if contact hours isn’t it.

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