Am I Getting Enough Contact Hours at University?

03/08/2016 12:23 | Updated 04 August 2017

Scrolling through my timetable in first-year, I couldn't understand why I had so few contact hours a week. Eight? Was that all? It seemed like nothing compared to the twenty-five hours I had at school.

After all, sixth-form was supposed to give you a taste of independence. I felt liberated by free periods. I was able to go home for lunch and return to school in time for class. Any more of those empty slots, however, was an unsettling presence. With £9000 a year tuition fees and rising, it left me wondering where all this money going.

According to research from Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institution, arts and humanities students spend just nine hours in lectures and seminars. Law students fare slightly better, with an average of eleven hours of class per week.

But the reality is far from what it seems. The statistics don't show the amount of independent research carried out in your spare time. You will spend hours in the library flicking through dusty books for a single, one-line quote. Whatever you may miss from your limited timetable is made up for by office hours. And although your time is more fluid, it will involve lengthy spells of reading, or one to one exchanges with tutors outside of the course schedule.

On average, students outnumber staff fourteen to one - leading to crowded seminars often short for time. As a result, independent research becomes infinitely more rewarding.

Rosie Parry, a recent graduate of Goldsmith University, said "I didn't mind the eight hours a week because there was so much reading to do outside of that, and everyone else was willing to meet with me if I needed to". As an English with Creative writing student, she says that tutors were happy "to meet up more when I needed it".

In recent years, students have focused on what they perceive as a return for their financial investment - however many fear of losing out. Amir Azam, a History student at King's College London, believes that "the money they save on my contact hours should go elsewhere to benefitting me".

Indeed, science based subjects benefit from longer teaching hours. If you study medicine or dentistry, you can expect twenty-one or more hours in lectures and clinics. While biological students enjoy fourteen hours of class, in contrast to engineers, whose contact hours are double that of humanities students.

The focus on value for money is intensified by the recent announcement of a fee hike above the £9000 threshold from Royal Holloway, Durham and Kent University. A 2011 report from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) claims that there 'is no evidence to suggest that, taken alone, contact hours offer a meaningful way in which to measure quality.

They add: 'Quality (or more specifically, academic quality) is about providing an environment that creates the potential for students to succeed in their studies', which is 'measured in a qualitative rather than quantitative way'.

But recent data from The Students Academic Experience Survey, collected by HEPI and the Higher Education Academy, reveal that only a third of students think that they get "good value for money" - a figure which has fallen from 53% to 37% since 2012.

It is unsurprising, then, that the number of contact hours influence how students perceive their quality of learning experience. Nonetheless, teaching goes way beyond the classroom.

The canny student will maximise university resources by finding opportunities to learn outside of fixed hours. For me, independent research has been hugely beneficial. So before you gasp at those vacant slots on your timetable, remember that fewer hours do not mean less work.