This week, the Quality Assurance Agency released its latest review of the University of Oxford, and one of the most notable findings of the review was the agency’s request that Oxford address students’ fears of “excessive” workloads.
A significant number of Oxford undergraduates said that “rigor is lost to excessive workloads” and that there is “little parity across colleges” on the numbers and kinds of assignments students are tasked to complete. Reportedly, the burdensome workload depresses educational standards at the prestigious university.
The watchdog group says that student workload, which is currently assigned by the discretion of individual teachers, should be integrated into an institution-wide framework that sets clear limits, standards, and expectations.
An analysis conducted by Times Higher Education in 2013 found that Oxford students are among the hardest working in the United Kingdom. Statistics show that, on average, Oxford undergraduates devote more than 40 hours a week to their studies — significantly more than their peers at other universities.
For example, the study revealed that Oxford students taking courses in historical and philosophical studies spent, on average, 41 hours a week studying compared with their peers in similar courses at Northumbria University, where those enrolled spent 19.3 hours a week studying. In the biological sciences, Oxford students spend an average of 40.3 hours studying compared with the 20.2 hours of study undertaken by their peers at the University of Portsmouth. In the United States, American students typically enroll in four courses a semester and are expected to devote 6-8 hours of extra study for each, equaling a 24 to 32-hour academic workload.
The Quality Assurance Agency’s report says that Oxford does not present students with detailed outlines of workloads when they are choosing courses or a major. The university has a strong advisory program that works with students to make sure their interests and goals are being satisfied, but it does not inform students about things like the volume of assignments and the number of teaching hours to any given course.
Oxford’s undergraduates cite their workloads as a “serious concern,” and many report that after complaining to their respective departments, they were told that it “was a college matter” without ever having the issue resolved. The review finds fault with this culture, saying that Oxford has a responsibility to its students on matters of learning and teaching. Therefore, it must “address the problem of uneven workload” by proving explicit guidance to streamline workload standards across the institution.
The vice-president for access and academic affairs at the Oxford University Student Union, Cat Jones, agreed that burdensome workloads are a challenge faced by many students.“There are instances where students are set three essays in one week; at those levels, that’s clearly at the detriment of rigour, welfare and pedagogy,” Jones said. “At that point, you are very much an essay machine; you are meeting deadlines rather than having time to learn and to reflect on what you are meant to be learning.”
Despite the disconcerting findings regarding student workload, the Quality Assurance Agency found that all areas of higher education at Oxford University exceeded evaluative standards. It also identified several areas of good practice, where the college serves as a model example.
A university spokesman said:
“We are already at work on the report’s three recommendations, including the provision of more information about the teaching patterns that students can expect on each course. The QAA commends Oxford on the quality of its student representation on educational matters, and we will use these strong links to discuss and respond to particular workload concerns.”
For interested readers, the full report conducted by the Quality Assurance Agency is available online.