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How Oxbridge is different

HEPI’s Nick Hillman says that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are different and that the whole higher education sector can learn from this.
This article is more than 3 years old

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and a former Special Adviser to David Willetts, the Minister for Universities & Science.

The HEPI/HEA Student Academic Experience Survey was established in 2006 and has become a rich dataset.

One recent minister for universities told me he had rejected HEFCE’s pleas to stop using it in favour of the official (and sanitised) National Student Survey (NSS) because he found it so useful. It remains the best source of information on important issues such as contact hours, value for money, and student wellbeing.

Every year, institutions use the data for internal assessments of how they compare to their competitors. One vice chancellor, Tim Blackman, has undertaken his own research on a single question from the survey to show what affects self-perceived learning gain. Information sources for higher education applicants, such as Unifrog, use the data to reveal what different options are like.

A different experience

But even though the survey is HEPI’s flagship project, it remains frustrating that the extensive information we have collected with the Higher Education Academy (now Advance HE) via YouthSight, is not more widely used. We wanted to put that frustration to positive use. So we commissioned Charlotte Freitag, a University of Oxford postgraduate who previously studied at the University of Glasgow, to look afresh at the last six years of data. The specific essay question we posed was “Oxford and Cambridge – how different are they?”, which is the title of an influential (but old) HEPI paper.

The results, published today, are illuminating. A much higher proportion of Oxbridge undergraduate students (59%) are “very satisfied” with their course than undergraduates at other Russell Group institutions (31%) or undergraduates overall (also 31%). Oxbridge undergraduates report working an average of 43 hours per week during term-time, 12 more than those at other Russell Group institutions and undergraduates overall. Nearly all Oxbridge undergraduates (96%) have at least one hour per week in micro-sized tutorials or supervisions of up to five other students compared to just over a third elsewhere.

82% of Oxbridge students say that they receive their work back within one week on average, compared to just 13% of other Russell Group students and 11% of students overall. Against my prior expectations (or prejudices), we found Oxbridge students score better on our wellbeing indicators than students elsewhere, except for anxiety where there is no statistically significant difference.

What Oxbridge’s difference means

I think that there are three key lessons from this research. First, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are exceptional – and exceptionally good. We are lucky to have them in our higher education system and there are probably some benefits for all other institutions – for example, in the UK’s overall appeal to potential international students. I worry about the consequences for the sector as a whole of having two such hyper-selective institutions at the top of the tree, and Oxford’s new data on access shows how big their own challenges are. But it would be churlish not to be impressed by the excellent education and student experience our two oldest universities provide.

Yes, some students who enter Oxbridge find that they would have been better suited to another institution – as we make clear in the report. Yes, Oxford and Cambridge have well-prepared students, lots of money, pleasant college environments, highly-skilled staff, and are situated in cities that offer a high quality of life. Yes, senior leaders at other institutions could provide a similarly world-class experience if they only had access to the same advantages. But, it would be silly to ignore Oxbridge’s strong record just because Oxford’s and Cambridge’s circumstances are fortunate and near impossible to emulate.

Second, there is at least one important area where the outliers are neither Oxbridge nor newer universities, but non-Oxbridge Russell Group universities. This is the prevalence of larger classes: 59% of other Russell Group undergraduates have at least one class per week with more than 100 other students, in comparison to 42% of Oxbridge students and 42% of students overall. This does not mean students at other Russell Group institutions are struggling to have a great student experience – year after year, our overall survey results tell a positive story about the student experience at Russell Group universities.

Third, there are many areas where the experience of students overall looks similar to the experience at non-Oxbridge Russell Group institutions. In addition to those areas mentioned above, other areas where this is true include: whether students would have chosen a different course; value for money perceptions; and usefulness of feedback. When we sent the report out under embargo, one vice chancellor immediately emailed back to say: “the really interesting thing about the analysis is not ‘how different Oxbridge is’ but how similar the results are for the Russell Group and all other UK universities.” He has a point, though others will no doubt point out that bigger differences would be evident if we had looked at research rather than teaching and learning.

The new report uses data from 2012 to 2017 and we will be publishing the latest data at HEPI’s 2018 Annual Conference on 7th June 2018. Following the recent merger, our report will be badged the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey for the first time and it will be more sophisticated than ever before. That means more detailed questions and answers on value for money, the use of tuition fees, and attitudes towards international students, as well as new analysis cutting the data in novel ways. We hope to see you there.

9 responses to “How Oxbridge is different

  1. This is an interesting look at the data and there are things we can all learn from this, but I also wonder about the characteristics of participants. At the University of Hertfordshire, where I work, around 40% of our students are first in family to university, around half commute to university, and a very large proportion need to work to make ends meet. I can’t help feeling that all these factors must impact on the ways in which a students may engage with their studies, as well as on their perceptions. If Oxbridge students were a more socially mobile group, how would the data change?

  2. Given recent discussion of biases in Oxbridge recruitment, shouldn’t you at least consider the possibility that any systematic difference between the experience of their students and those elsewhere might be largely due to the fact that they are selected from a systematically different population, rather than being naively impressed by the “excellent education and student experience” that their students experience?

  3. @Michael Merrifield: the comparison is between Oxbridge and RG not Oxbridge and all HEI institutions. So while there may be a selection effect, it is tough to attribute all of the gap to this. Also the report doesn’t say the teaching is excellent (whatever that actually means) – it actually argues the teaching is less creative (again, whatever that actually means). There is a statistical methodology and the results are not completely ridiculous.

    In conjunction with yesterday’s data release, it boils down to this. Places at Oxford & Cambridge are exceptionally scarce and the experience, to the extent it can be measured, is exceptionally good. The question is which groups have the greatest claim to this scarce resource and do they map on to the groups who are currently benefiting from it. A secondary question is whether it is possible/desirable to scale up the numbers experiencing what these two universities offer.

  4. This is really good, I respect the nuance here. I am a class warrior, opposed to everything Oxbridge stands for socially, and angry at their social exclusion (and their conspiracy to mess with pensions, but that is a separate issue).

    But I would be really happy for my child to go there. Why ? Because, as the article makes clear the quality of teaching is so good (generally speaking); and that quality derives from the personalized attention that students get. That may be hypocritical of me, but there you go.

    It has been salutary being an insider-academic doing visit days. It has confirmed my long held view that one of the most important things for a would be student is to get on a small-ish course irrespective of subject wherein they will be personally known and recognized by their lecturers, not just an allocated ‘tutor’ or ‘supervisor’.

    In my personal, and anecdotal, admittedly, experience, of family members, and of teaching undergrads this has determined more than anything how well students do, in terms of academic performance and personal development. It is not wholly related to RG vs post-92 either. The latter seem to do really well, if the cohort is small.

  5. I wonder whether the ‘Oxbridge vs the Rest’ approach is part of the reason behind such stark inequalities.

    What would the stats be like if it we broke the Russell Group into its constituent members? Would the difference be as great?

  6. Whether it’s fair or not, Oxbridge provides the closest you can get to one-to-one tuition with the world’s greatest academics. You can’t argue that it must be an incredible experience which just isn’t replicated elsewhere.

  7. 15-20 years ago I went to Cambridge, studying on a combination of two small subjects (one in first year and the other in second and third year, as the system allows). The extracurricular experience was excellent and formative in many ways – but could have been more so. The education itself, I now recognise, was sub-par. The one-to-one teaching was usually with PhD students or casuals. My lecturers and I did all know each other individually, but there was little educational consequence to that. Sometimes supervisors would fall asleep while teaching me (yes!), or would talk only to the one student in the small group who was a long way ahead of the rest of us. At the time I didn’t realise I could expect anything more. I hope that the modern age of teaching evaluation, accountability and student feedback has changed this for the better.

  8. Unlike Tom, when I went to Cambridge 25-ish years ago (and read modern & medieval languages) only on one course for one term were my one-to-one supervisions ever with a PhD student (when my director of studies was on sabbatical). All the others were with academics at the top of their respective fields with very solid publication records. This may relate to Bill Cooke’s comment about the value of a “small course”; after my first year I largely chose relatively obscure topics which only a handful of undergraduates across the university were studying. By and large, though, in MML undergraduates were supervised by senior academics; it was much more normal in maths or the sciences for supervisions to be taken by PhDs, which may have been a result of the overall student numbers or of the much more uniform content of teaching in the pre-final years of the maths/science courses…

  9. Tom’s experience at Cambridge is similar to mine at Oxford, except in fairness I would say that overall, with one or two exceptions, new academics and PhD students were usually the best at teaching and the most empathetic, engaged, interesting and helpful. There were long term benefits to the individual tutorial system (such as in learning to turn work around at speed -twelve written assignments in eight weeks and being in the front line to answer all questions on your work if they could be bothered to ask any) but the quality of individual tutorials was not what you would expect from world class academics. Such as never giving any feedback of even a mark or correction on your work in writing – who knows if they read it? Such as being vague about which parts of the curriculum you were studying with them – every week. Spending time passing round Sherry and discussing that and their holidays rather your work. Such as reading lists given verbally as in ‘you’ll want to read Peter’s book’, and ‘John’s (who?); such as making students read out essays aloud for each tutorial so most of the time wasn’t used in interesting discussion but saved marking work; such as tutors being asleep in their bedroom when you arrive or wandering off midway and not coming back; such as having people drop in and arrange social events during your tutorial; or just not turning up; etc. Some got basic facts wrong. None ever discussed their research not least as it was so specialised if wasn’t relevant to more than one piece of work at most. None raised interesting philosophical debates about the nature of the subject or knowledge. Many rambled on about whatever they fancied. Certainly none seemed interested in us or our long term futures as academics or anything else. Lectures were dull, usually old scripts read out in a monotone. It was a huge disappointment from a teaching perspective – BUT the overall Oxford experience was amazing – and of course we knew the important part was the reputation of the university and its history. More than any other universities, that is what distinguishes Oxford and Cambridge on the world stage. It would be rather bizarre for current students to give ratings that undermined the university reputation when that is its key asset for them.

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