GLOBAL: Student disengagement: global comparisons

A common reaction to reports of student disengagement is that we all should get used to widespread disengagement because nothing better should be expected from a mass university system. A variety of excuses are made for students who are 'too busy' to put full effort into their studies. One way to approach this 'inevitability question' is to ask whether the levels of student disengagement observed in Canada and the US are also found in massified systems in other countries.

To answer this question, we can look at data from some European studies that have measured students' time use out of class in a comparable way to National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) studies in the US [1]. These data come from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in Oxford, England [2].

The HEPI studies, conducted in 2006, 2007 and 2009, found that students in England spent on average about 13 hours per week on 'private study': reading for classes and completing assignments [3]. When added to an average of about 14 hours of class time, the total amount of time spent on their studies was just over 26 hours, comparable to what Canadian and American students spend according to the NSSE studies - the equivalent of a part-time job.

Study time was also examined in terms of variations among and within universities, with the finding that these averages ranged from under 15 hours per week to over 45 hours at different universities. When different types of programmes were examined, it appears that the least effort is put into the liberal arts programmes like humanities and social sciences (total time commitments of about 20 hours per week) and the most into professional-vocational programmes like medicine and engineering (over 35 hours per week).

However, when compared to other European countries, English students spend on average 15% less time on their studies out of class. When time spent in class was added with time preparing for class, students in France spent almost 40 hours per week. Other countries topping 35 hours per week - the equivalent of a full-time job - were Norway, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland [4].

After presenting the results for English universities and summarising these comparisons with other European countries, Bahram Bekhradnia, Director of HEPI, voiced his frustration at how policy-makers in England were ignoring these findings, especially the questions raised 'about the possible variation in standards between subjects and universities, and about what it means to have a degree from an English university' [5]. Bekhradnia continued by making the following observations:

If it is possible to earn a degree in, say, history in one university after studying for just 20 hours a week whereas a student in a different university studying history is required to put in 30 hours each week, then it is reasonable to assume that the student in the latter will, all other things being equal, achieve a higher standard. That is not of course necessarily so.

It could be that the former university has found a magic bullet that enables students to achieve the same high standards as a student at the latter - or it could be that the latter is more inefficient than the former. That at least is a matter for investigation and explanation, and so far there has been no apparent inclination on the part of those concerned to investigate whether that is so, and if not, what the implications are for standards in our universities.

At the extreme, of course, this may simply be an indication that what students study, and how much they learn, is not the most important thing while they are at university and that the three or four years they spend there are more important for other reasons. If that is the case too, that is something that is worth investigating and concluding on the basis of evidence. What is not acceptable is simply to ignore the issue.

With respect to the unfavourable comparisons of English universities with some continental ones, Bekhradnia concludes that "students in England appear to devote less time to their studies than students elsewhere in Europe - and that therefore a degree in England can apparently be obtained with less effort than elsewhere". Given the prospect that English universities "are not very demanding of their students" [6] - a prospect also faced in Canada and the US - Bekhradnia contends the following:

It is inconvenient for us now also to have to demonstrate how students in this country achieve outcomes equivalent to those in other countries with very different amounts of effort, even within their shorter [three-year] degree courses. It is quite plausible that they might do so, but if the issue is simply ignored, as it has been so far, the presumption will be that degrees in this country are more easily available in some universities and in some subjects than elsewhere in Europe, and that on average our degree standards are lower.

On the positive side, it does appear that some English universities are attending to these problems, but on a negative side, just as in Canada, in England "the response of the national bodies and those that represent universities collectively has been disappointingly defensive".

Still, the press in England picked up the story, making note of the gender differences, suggesting "boys are down the pub and the girls are in the library", as well as the now obvious conclusion that many "students are enrolled full-time but studying part-time" [7].

Based on these international comparisons, therefore, it appears that disengagement is not an inevitable result of massification, although it is a distinct possibility if stewards of the system are not watchful.

posted on: 6/18/2010

* James Côté is a professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and co-author with Anton Allahar of Ivory Tower Blues: A university system in crisis as well as a forthcoming book Lowering Higher Education: The rise of corporatized universities and the fall of liberal education. He has also authored numerous journal articles on student experiences with higher education.

* "Academic disengagement: International comparisons", by Jim Côté, was first published in the author's blog Ivory Tower Blues and in the blog Art and Science of Teaching of Academic Matters, the journal of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. It is republished with permission from the author and journal.

Notes and references

1- The question asked in the HEPI studies was worded as follows: 'In an average week during term-time, roughly how many hours have you spent on private study? Please include time spent reading, researching, writing essays and reports, doing unsupervised laboratory work etc.' (Tom Sastry and Bahram Bekhradnia, The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities, Higher Education Policy Institute, September 2007, (accessed 18 Dec. 2009), 30.

2- See also the report Eurostudent 2005 Social And Economic Conditions Of Student Life, for results from a project coordinated by HIS Hochschul-Informations-System, Hannover 2005, Germany, (accessed 18 Dec. 2009).

3- Bahram Bekhradnia, The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities 2009 Report, Higher Education Policy Institute, September 2007, (accessed 18 Dec. 2009).

4- Bekhradnia, The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities 2009 Report, 7. The Eurostudent 2005estimates are a bit lower for European countries, with most recording between 30 to 35 hours per week, and a high of 41 hours for Portugal (pp. 132-133). These differing stimates among studies are likely due to question wording.

5- Bekhradnia, The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities 2009 Report, 6.

6- Ibid, 8.

7- BBC NEWS, 'Students in England 'Work Less',' (accessed 19 Dec. 2009). Males put in an average of 11.7 hours per week in private study, while females put in 13.3 (Sastry and Bekhradnia, The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities, 9.