Counting the hours: how much contact is “worth it”?

Since I do an English and History degree, so at least I’ll know how a library works once I’m living in one scribbling job applications, I’ve learned never to mention contact hours to science students. If I tell them how many I have, or rather how many I DON’T have, I have about three twitches of the eye to start running before I wake up strapped to a table, with ebola samples where my kidneys should be.

Or sometimes they write news articles about it. Take this piece, from science student Declan Rooney. He feels that science students have too many contact hours, and while he acknowledges that some subjects require more controlled work in a classroom-sized group than others, he envies the humanities’ flexible schedules and “freedom to organize their time”.

He notes that many humanities students use this extra time to get jobs and begin paying off their tuition fees – 42% of them, in fact. In a jobs market where 957,000 16-24 year olds are unemployed, and where work experience during university is heavily desired if not increasingly mandatory, this could well be an advantage in getting ahead.

However, ideally, those tuition fees should be worth it in the first place. Many feel that the number of contact hours in a degree are the easiest way to quantify that: that they’re what separates a worthwhile learning experience from a £9,000 library card. Last year, the University of York itself came under fire, among other institutions, as it was revealed that History students only spent 8% of the course on lectures and seminars (though the University noted this didn’t include drop-in sessions or one-on-one help with dissertations). Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University wrote that staff were increasingly tempted “to concentrate on their own research, which tends to be more lucrative than teaching.”

Independent study and its benefits can’t be discounted entirely. Learning to work independently, manage your own time and research for yourself are all vital skills out there in the real world, and all will eventually help your employability. Forbes notes that the top three skills employers want are an ability to solve problems, an ability to communicate with others and an ability to find and process information yourself. All this can be fostered through independent work, and preparing projects in groups or by yourself.

Focusing entirely on contact hours also brushes off any extra-curricular activities from your three years at university – work experience, societies, living alone. It’s been mentioned before that a degree’s worth more than just the sum of its contact hours, and that too often we can overlook the benefits of the experience itself.

But ultimately, the contribution of staff through lectures, seminars and marking is a vital selling point of any university, and the independent work can’t function without it. Quality needs to be upheld: in lectures and in the provision of help where necessary. For the record, my own degree this year’s been more than satisfactory about that.

To end by going back to Rooney’s report, he has a point of sorts: independent study and outside activities can’t be discounted when looking at a degree, and both need time to flourish. However, contact hours and their worth cannot be discounted entirely. And in fact, as rumours spread that tuition fees will end up rising again, the “value for money” of the bare contents of a degree will face even more scrutiny.

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