Are we paying tuition fees for an education or a certificate?

Feeling cheated by the number of contact hours you get for your money at university? You must be an arts student. Those studying medicine, law, or other subjects with high contact hours look away, lest I infuriate you by complaining about how few contact hours I have.

I’m going to explain exactly why you have every right to complain about the low number of contact hours in your course. As a student, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase “but you’re paying to go to university, so skipping lectures is just a waste of money” from concerned parents. Yet it is apparent, especially with the ever-increasing price of Higher Education, that a low number of contact hours is also a waste of that money.

As an English and Related Literature, and Philosophy student at the University of York, I am currently paying £3,225 a year in tuition fees for six hours of contact-time per week, for 27 weeks out of the year. Frankly the lecturers aren’t that good (not necessarily a slight on the lecturers, but I am paying a lot to hear them talk). This is also the case for students of History, Sociology, Politics… the list goes on., I also received four, 15-minute, one-on-one tutorials per term for English, to discuss my essays. As a warning to future Philosophy students however, don’t expect such privilege- in fact, don’t expect more than a couple of scribbled notes on your work which you collect from the Department without so much as discussing the work with a tutor.

I can’t imagine I was alone in being joyous about the low number of contact hours at first. After getting into bed at four am, I fully enjoyed the fact that I had a free day to look forward to the next day, whilst all the sleep-deprived future doctors and lawyers would have to crawl out of bed at eight am following the same night out. However, as time went on (and my overdraft took more and more of a beating) I became more frustrated that I was paying primarily for ‘self-directed learning’ which I’m told is an
integral aspect of my course. Whilst I don’t underestimate the importance of being able to study independently, I take offence at being charged yearly for what I am teaching myself.

I cannot comprehend the frustration of an international student studying a subject with so few contact hours. At a price of £10,271, international students too can expect to hear repeatedly the value of independent study. I am not arguing to be spoon-fed either, far from it. However, just two of my contact hours per week give me the chance to debate or contribute in any way, and with little hope of this increasing more than by about an hour per week next year, I am not convinced that ‘not wanting students to be spoon-fed’ is a valid excuse.

Either give us a higher number of contact hours for our money, or admit that a greater level of independent study in a course should entitle those students to lower tuition fees (after all, surely tuition fees are being paid in return for the tuition provided to us by the university – i.e. tuition which we could not have given ourselves from home). According to an article in the Times, Lancaster University currently leads the way, by confirming that all second and third-year students will receive a minimum of ten hours of contact-time per week.

Without doing something, universities must admit that these students, who clearly aren’t paying for the tuition (as they are expected to do most of the learning off their own backs) in the way that students of medicine or law are, are simply paying for the certificate at the end of the three years. Considering how little my own writing has improved over the year, and the number of times I have used Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to supplement my lectures, I think the latter may sadly be the case.


  1. 11 May ’10 at 5:51 pm

    Lectures are usless

    I seem to have spent my £3k on some slides, and a man to read out what the slides say.

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  2. I completely agree with everything that you say. Just to put forward a counterargument – Open University pay for what is essentially no contact hours. So for a large part we *are* unfortunately paying for the certificate. And, some would argue, the deadlines force us to research and work independently, helping us to learn… but I’m sure we learn less than from seminars etc! Speaking as a science student with a gazillion contact hours – the extra contact hours don’t help me to learn much more but rather just put pressure on so many areas that it’s impossible to learn a lot of what is studied. I think I have too many contact times to learn properly what I’m being taught. 12-16 hours per week would be best – and those on under 10 really aren’t getting value for money!

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  3. 12 May ’10 at 7:47 am

    Just so you know...

    Absolutely spot on. The English department thinks it is safeguarded by the claim to quality and high teaching standards — but we are not even exposed to them on a weekly basis; and, like you said, all we get are a few thrown together, rather useless lectures (although in second-year, you don’t even get that privilege) and a scribbled-on piece with a bit of non-constructive advice about how we need to be more “engaged” which is meant to represent a tutorial. It is not only financially, but also academically, frustrating.

    If the tuition fee cap is removed (which, now that the supposedly ‘coalition’ Condem cabinet has stamped on the spineless Liberals, is increasingly likely) some would say that we will finally be able to pay less for an arts degree with significantly lower hours: However, what some don’t seem to have realised is that this may assist in actively demeaning an arts degree even further, making the reputation of our degrees dependent on how much we pay.

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  4. 12 May ’10 at 3:55 pm

    Humanities student

    As a History and Politics student, I know what you mean by a very small amount of contact hours, but nevertheless, the thought of weighing up my tuition fees only with these never crossed my mind…besides the point about self-directed learning, it is important to remember that you also pay for being able to use university resources such as the library (being able to read books that would otherwise let your budget explode).

    It would be nice of course to be able to spend more time discussing your essays with your tutors etc. but what really counts for your personal development is your individual study, your engagement with the literature and (why not?) spontaneaous conversations about a topic with a friend or your tutor.

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  5. 12 May ’10 at 10:42 pm

    Camlan Leitner

    ‘Just so you know..’ I actually hadn’t considered the fact that paying less for your degree could contribute to undermining the reputation of the degree.. you’re absolutely right though that it probably would. Situation is definitely a hopeless one :\

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  6. I do an arts degree, and have around 2 contact hours a week on average.. However, I view my tuition fees as paying for my degree – paying for the qualification I will recieve, as opposed to the teaching itself. I’d rather have less contact hours and a degree, than lots of contact hours to make me feel better about the money I’m spending, and a degree.
    Anyway, on a side note, I feel I’ve learnt a lot in terms of my degree, even if it is just two hours a week. Prep work may be independent, but the seminars are definitely useful.

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  7. We pay tuition fees because the government says we have to – it’s nothing to do with the university. I doubt that the delivery of courses has changed since payment of part of the fees shifted to us from the government – the only thing that has changed is that we notice it.

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  8. 16 May ’10 at 3:51 pm

    Politics student

    What we’re paying for are the resources open to us, such as the Library and (probably more importantly for a lot of politics students) subscriptions to countless online journals. These are invaluable not just in our course but also open up to us a huge wealth of academic information and insight that is not available to those who are not at Uni.

    These also allow us to read around our subject and actually to look at things that interest us, particularly with regards to our dissertation.

    Plus the limited hours of arts students allow us to throw ourselves into extra-curricular activities that are here at York, and is one of the reasons why some of them, such as the student media, are amongst the highest regarded in the country.

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  9. 16 May ’10 at 3:53 pm

    Another politics student

    I think you’ll find that, once you get to final year, you’ll appreciate having fewer contact hours because there is so much to take in and read and process between seminars and lectures. Frankly, taking final year modules like Islam and the Middle East I was reading around 10 books a week to stay on top of it, and couldn’t have coped with more contact hours than we had really.

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  10. I’m in the final year of an English degree at Exeter and last term I had 2 hours contact time per week. Since I’ve handed in all my work, I have 0 hours this term but I’m still paying for it. It’s all very well for universities to say, “oh, we don’t want to spoon-feed students, we encourage self-motivated study,” but I could easily go to my local library at home and carry out self-motivated study without paying £3225 for it. Especially since my local library is bigger than the campus library.

    I suppose you could argue that the money pays for your degree rather than tuition, but at the end of the day a degree is just a piece of paper. It’s not intrinsically valuable, it’s only has meaning because of what it represents. I came to university to get an education, not a bit of paper.

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  11. 19 May ’10 at 4:15 pm

    Crown Dependency Student

    As a Crown Dependency Student, my fees are around £6,600 per year. As a second year politics student I get a maximum of 4.5 hours per week, for a maximum of 8 weeks per term, working out at over £60 per hour of teaching. I know we get access to all these ‘resources’ (including a library not fit for purpose), but this is not the point; this is the same for any university student. Looking at it from a comparative point of view, the contact hours at York for social sciences & humanities students are disproportionally low if looked at alongside comparable institutions.

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  12. 19 May ’10 at 9:30 pm

    Camlan Leitner

    As ‘Crown Dependency Student’ has pointed out, the fact that we are paying for resources such as the library is irrelevant to an extent because the medics/law students get the same resources AND more contact time. Plus, I agree with those people who have pointed out that we can have access to a library without being at university.

    ‘Anon’- Fair enough, but I actually intend to get an education rather than just become yet another person with a piece of paper telling me I’m educated. As for you saying that you feel you have learnt a lot in your degree.. last week I asked my tutor to discuss an essay that I was working on and his reply was ‘Why? You’ve told me what you’re writing it on, what more is there to talk about?’ If this is the kind of tuition I can expect from York, then I guess it really will have to be all about ‘the extra-curricular activities that are here at York’..

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  13. Of course it’s a con but ultimately Universities would struggle without it. By giving the University money, they can do more prestigious research, giving the University a better reputation – and eventually giving our degrees a better reputation.

    ~J – one thing I would say about the OU is even though you don’t get contact hours, you get much better prepared plans for learning with the resources you need etc. because it has to stand up to the scrutiny of not 100 or 200 students but several thousand.

    I think I had read before that science degrees with all their associated teaching costs wouldn’t be able to be run if all those on arts degrees didn’t pay the full whack – so in essence it’s an education tax – a tax being an unrequited, compulsory payment where we really have no right to ask the University what they’re spending it on, or to hold them to account – it’s a decent part of their income for their spending on staff and research.

    Supposedly that’s what the NUS / YUSU does on our behalf – keeping the balance tipped towards students and teaching where possible – but at the end of it all the University’s objective isn’t to provide great teaching, it’s to provide great research under the belief that great academics coming here ‘filters through’ to teaching anyway, and also that if the University is more famous and renowned, that bit of paper is also more valuable!

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  14. Personally I’m pretty happy with not having any contact hours…I think by and large it depends on what you do with yourself in your spare time. I spend a large amount of my spare time (during the day) reading for the course and I feel that even though I might not always need to spend so much time reading etc I’m more than anything able to venture out and learn about other aspects of things. Having spare time to pursue what I’m interested in has awakened my curiosity to no end, and tbh because I’ve done it on my own accord without feeling any obligation to do so I’ve been able to take it in properly, on its own terms, rather than only regarding things as useful purely in terms of their relevance to an upcoming essay.

    I’m doing alright in my degree and generally I’m pretty happy with what I’ll end up with…but to say that it’s worth defining my amount of learning and growth as a person by a piece of paper is a bit limited if you ask me.

    A person doing a similar course to mine complained to me recently about how she’s getting a degree when most of her time is spent watching Jeremy Kyle because her course doesn’t push her enough. I didnt mention anything to her but ffs she won’t get 3 years where she has freedom like this until she’s bloody retired! It’s about making the most of it. You can spend your time improving your understanding of the world; improving yourself; learning about things; getting in touch with a genuine sense of wonder which comes from reading things one’s interested in….or you can fucking vegetate and watch shit tv for three years. Whatever.

    If you don’t have contact hours and have loads of spare time then the only difference is that what you take from uni is much more in your own hands.

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  15. ^ I meant MANY contact hours btw!

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