Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Note of informal meetings with groups of students at the University of Oxford on 30 March 2009


Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee:

  Mr Phil Willis MP, Chairman

Mr Tim Boswell MP

  Dr Evan Harris MP

  Mr Graham Stringer MP

  Mr Ian Stewart MP

Students from the University of Oxford:

  Mr Terrance Ayebale (3rd Year, Engineering Science, St Anne's)

  Mr Alex Bulfin (2nd Year, English, University)

  Ms Orla Byrne (Finalist, Law, St Anne's)

  Ms Rachel Cummings (OUSU[1] Vice President—Women)

  Mr Pieter Hermans (4th Yr, Maths & Philosophy, Worcester)

  Mr Ben Hemingway, (Finalist, PPE,[2] St Anne's)

  Mr Ramandeep Kaur (Finalist, Law, St Anne's)

  Mr Martin Lennon, (Finalist, PPE, St Anne's College)

  Mr James O'Connell-Lauder (2nd Year, PPE, University)

  Mr Conan McKenzie (Lady Margaret Hall)

  Ms Diamanto Mamuneas, (2nd Year, Biological Sciences, St Anne's)

  Mr Jack Matthews (2nd Year Earth Sciences, St Peters and OUSU)

  Ms Ellen Maunder (Finalist, English, St Anne's)

  Mr Jonathan Medland (3rd Year, History & Politics, Queen's)

  Mr Laurence Mills (2nd Year, History & Politics, Magdalen)

  Mr Sanjay Nanwani (2nd Year, PPE, St Peter's)

  Mr Zim Nwokora (4th Year D Phil, Politics. St Anne's)

  Mr Robert Ritter (D Phil, English)

  Ms Portia Roelofs (2nd Year, PPE, Queen's)

  Ms Helene Suttle (3rd Year D Phil, Materials, Oriel)

  Mr Joseph Wales (2nd Year, Maths, St Hugh's)

  Mr Matthew Watson (Queen's)

  Mr Adam Whitley (MSc, Mathematical & Computational Finance St Anne's)

  Committee Members put a number of questions to groups of students and this note records the points made in reply.


  Mr Stringer asked the students what and who had influenced their decision to apply to Oxford. Several students in one group had found that the experience of visiting the university—for example, on open days—very helpful. In particular, the opportunity to spend several days staying in college and meeting "real" students already at the university was important and had helped them to "like the environment".

  Although one student in another group had originally decided to go to another university, his teacher at school had convinced him to look more closely at Oxford. When he was offered a place, he said that it was very much a case of "you don't say no to Oxford". Another student had originally targeted Cambridge, having been encouraged by his teachers at school from year 9 onwards. However, when the student learned more about the Oxford course he realised that it was the best for him so he changed.

  A student in another group explained that both his parents had been to Oxford so he knew all about it before coming. He acknowledged, however, that he had not given it much thought, had not expected to get a place and so had also looked at other universities. He liked the tutorial system at Oxford which he found beneficial. In the case of another student, one parent had been to university and a large proportion of students from his school had also gone on to university so he also expected to go. Although he had originally applied after an Opening Evening at school, he did not gain admission on his first application. However, he had been very certain that Oxford was where he wanted to go and had found it unique all the way through in terms of the kind of English course he was studying. Another student pointed out that, when he was making choices, he realised that not that many universities did History and Politics. When he looked at Oxford he knew he wanted to go there because of the atmosphere he experienced.

  One student in another group explained that advice from his school teacher that Oxford offered the promise of a world class education had been very influential. He had also valued the opportunity to engage with academics in tutorials.

  Another student explained that the fantastic library system at Oxford and the teaching style was important to him, because he liked to talk and it matched his preferred way of learning. The college system was seen as beneficial as was the bursary system, which some students described as world class. One student found he was more comfortable with the Oxford tutorial system because he had been frustrated in the 6th form where he had not been able to give his point of view and get the kind of personal attention Oxford gave. Another student had specifically wanted to do PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) and, although some other universities did it, the Oxford course was the most appealing.

  Mr Stringer asked about specific influences such as school or careers guidance. The students in one group explained that their teachers had suggested they look at Oxbridge and they had visited as a consequence. In one case, the school now organised a general visit for pupils, which was very helpful. One student had been encouraged by being involved in his school's "Gifted and Talented" scheme and because the former head of sixth form at his school also had contacts at the university.

  The students did not consider that the careers service had, in general, been very influential when making their university choices, although in some cases they were made aware of the benefits Oxford offered in relation to postgraduate and employment opportunities. Although parents, friends and tutors had been more influential than careers contacts for the majority of students, one student had a good careers adviser at school who had encouraged her to apply. Overall, all the students in the group considered that the key influence was not careers advice but the opportunity to visit the university and meet students and tutors.

  Students in another group had mixed experiences of specialist careers advice. One student had received good careers advice at school but once he had gone to the local further education college he found less advice was available. Another student found that careers help was provided when he was making his subject choices at A-level and for university, but advice in relation to the specific university was seen as a personal preference.

  Students in another group said that the university's prospectus had been useful in giving basic information about colleges and also the lifestyle. The "Alternative prospectus" (ie one produced by students in each college) was also praised because it offered a refreshing take from the students. One student commented that schools differed substantially in the approach they took to applications and visits: some were very much more proactive in bringing or sending their pupils to open days.

  Several students considered that they could have been given more detailed information. For example, one student had found it hard to find sufficient information and guidance about the college and university before coming for interview. Another had found the fact that he already knew someone studying at the university before coming for interview was invaluable. Although there was general agreement in the group that more information could be provided, there was also agreement that only so much information could be published and it was important to combine it with a visit.

  One student said that the interview, which had lasted three days at the College, was seen by several as a great opportunity for the university to test a prospective student out as well as assist him or her to decide whether the university was suitable.

  Students in one group considered that it was up to the university to get out and to engage with students who might not usually apply. One explained that Oxford was a welcoming and diverse university and that many myths that Oxford was posh were untrue. Another had come to Oxford thinking that private school students would not like him but had found this was not true and the tutors treated all students the same. Several students considered that it is important to target teachers in schools and colleges because their knowledge of universities was often 30 years out-of-date or based on the "History Boys", which promoted the wrong idea about Oxford.


  Mr Stringer asked the students about their experience after they came to Oxford. Students in one group commented that, once at the university, the Freshers' Week guide was useful, giving information about the kinds of workload to expect—for example, hours and numbers of tutorials.

  One student said that he had focused on a particular course he wished to do and had been unconcerned about the different teaching environment, which was in marked contrast to that he had experienced before coming to university. He commented that it had come as a bit of a shock to find that he had to attend four different tutorials each week, with each tutor reviewing progress. A student in another group had been shocked at the level of work involved and the amount of pressure placed on students. Another explained that his college was pretty strict if a student was not at upper second honours standard. He had been surprised at how many "posh kids" there are and commented that Oxford was a bit of a bubble and that the bubble was not representative because even the state school kids appeared "really posh".

  In contrast students in another group considered that there had been no major surprises. Each of them had, in general, been told what to expect when they arrived including, for example, the likely number of contact hours each term, which one student explained was, in his case, between eight and fifteen hours. Several agreed that it took time to get used to the self-motivation needed to be successful at Oxford.

  Another student described how the college "parenting scheme" had been very helpful to him. Before he started, students in the year above became his "college parents", got in touch and helped the incoming students with information and informal guidance. The benefit was that they provided copious information.

  When asked what would happen if a student missed going to tutorials, the general comment was that students did not miss them and that everyone went to tutorials.


  Mr Boswell asked students whether the Oxford bursary system worked well and if bursaries were fairly allocated. The students considered that "Oxford Opportunity" bursaries were very good, generous, quickly administered and that the application process was non-intrusive. In contrast, those applying for individual college bursaries found the process intrusive requiring a detailed breakdown of a student's expenditure. It was suggested that this could put off potential applicants for bursaries.

  One student said that he did not understand the bursary system. Another stated that study at Oxford without a bursary would not be possible but noticed that there was a disparity of up to £1000 depending on which year a student started his or her degree and considered that this was unfair. The students in another group agreed that in the case of a student who required financial help during term time it was a matter for the student to seek help from his or her college—in such a case a student would go to the domestic bursar. One student commented that at the college level decisions about financial help could be personal—in other words, team players were more likely to obtain help and more quickly.


  Mr Boswell asked if students had been concerned about debt before coming to university, especially given the job prospects for graduates since the start of the recession. One student answered that, although he had been just above the threshold for claiming a bursary, he was not worried about paying off an estimated £20,000 student debt on leaving university because the loan was not like a bank loan and could be paid back when creditor could afford it. When and how a student would pay off the student loan was more of a concern than the interest rate on the loan. The group agreed that how much a student was concerned about debt depended on his or her friends and family—if everyone in a student's peer group was in the same position debt was not an issue. One student commented that the student loan system assumed that a second child going to university was not an additional financial burden on a family and was slow to take this factor into account.

  Students in another group were not overly concerned about debt. One student had a training contract lined up after graduation and was therefore not concerned about paying off a loan.

  A student in another group was, however, concerned that the issue of debt was on students' minds because of problems with graduate jobs, but conceded that that it was not necessarily a "day-to-day worry". The same student thought that the extra cost of studying at Oxford (because it was an affluent city and because of the collegiate structure) might put students off applying. Another student added that in his experience (coming from a relatively affluent background) potential students were not put off applying to Oxford by debt but by the perception that Oxford was full of toffs. A student working with groups of potential students from less affluent backgrounds considered they were concerned about debt and that this was a problem across the board and not just for Oxford applications. One student in this group commented that the level of interest on student loans was a concern because loans accrued interest even if they were not at the earning threshold to start to pay the loan back.

  This group confirmed that paid employment in term time was strongly discouraged by the university. One student said this meant he had to work very hard in vacations to earn money.

  Mr Boswell asked the students how much costs varied between colleges, and whether this was clear before students applied. The students in one group considered that costs varied massively between colleges. A student in another group, who had been involved in asking colleges to publish their costs for potential students, considered that colleges had been slow to respond.

  The students in another group examined what factors might lead to a student dropping out of a course. It was suggested that finance alone was rarely the cause, but that different colleges might be more or less academically harsh and, if students were required to repeat a year because of personal problems, this could be a huge financial burden. One student pointed out that financial support varied between colleges, but there was also a central funding office. The students in this group considered that different colleges had very different costs and this could be a surprise to new students.


  Mr Stewart asked what constituted a good student experience at university. All the groups which considered the issue began with academic considerations, in particular they considered that the quality of the teaching available, the availability of staff, staff who could explain themselves and help the students to develop intellectually, were at the heart of a good university experience. A number of students referred to the need to feel challenged and to develop academically as individuals. Several students considered that the tutorial system was important because it not only allowed tutors to identify problems and help to develop students, but also because it ensured a challenging environment.

  As well as academic considerations the students identified the existence of a community environment, as manifested in the college system. Most—but not all— considered that the Oxford collegiate system was a huge plus because it enabled students and their tutors to know each other and also because the small environment meant easier and closer relationships and friendships.

  Mr Stewart asked the students to identify items that they would like to change or improve. The following were listed. First, some identified better connections with the local community. Second, others suggested more support for external activities. Third, it was suggested that better support for mental health problems among students was needed. It was noted that colleges could not afford to employ mental health experts individually, yet pastoral care was a college responsibility. Fourth, some called for better integration between the senior members of the college and the junior common room. Fifth, there was a call for better support—particularly funding—for postgraduate students.

  Some students also said that there needed to be more emphasis and support for study skills. Several said that the initial support given to students arriving at Oxford was inadequate. There appeared to be an assumption that because these were clever students they could be thrown in at the deep end. More emphasis on study skills at the beginning of their time at university would have been welcome.

  There was also criticism of the hours of study. All the students considered that they worked much harder than students at other universities, but nearly all were happy to do so because they believed that the degree that they would obtain from Oxford would be of considerable benefit through their subsequent careers. They believed that employers recognised students at Oxford were stretched more than students from elsewhere

  Several students thought that the reason they worked so hard was in large part because of the intimate tutorial system where there was nowhere to hide if the student had not done sufficient work. But the students recognised that the tutorial system was expensive, and that it would take an increase in the funding of the university to be able to maintain it. Several of the students said that they were involved in seeking alumni donations and that maintenance of the tutorial system was one of the benefits that they had to secure by obtaining more donations from alumni.

  One student identified the collegiate system as an issue. It was pointed out that colleges varied in the amount of tutorial support they were able to give students and that this appeared to depend on the relative wealth of the college. But it was noted that even relatively poor colleges were able to provide ad hoc support to students as they needed it.


  Mr Willis asked about the teaching model used at the University of Oxford. The students in the groups he questioned liked the teaching arrangements at Oxford, with appreciation for the tutorial system cited in particular. However, one group said that they recognised that it was not the be-all-and-end-all that it was sometimes made out to be. The groups identified as the principal problem a significant variation in quality. It was pointed out that sometimes a student was taught by someone who ran the course, other times by a PhD student who did not know the course. One student in another group commented that in a tutorial the student had the opportunity to delve into details that could not be covered during lectures. A student in another group said that the teaching model at Oxford was hard to beat sitting one-on-one with a tutor who was asking questions that got the best out of the student. He described it as phenomenal and something that that was not available in the US. Another described the teaching system as amazing.


  Mr Willis asked about the relationship between teaching and research. One student commented that the advantage of having teachers who were research active was that they were up-to-date with developments in the field. Another noted that it was not important for teachers to be up-to-date in all fields—for example, when teaching Kant, most of the best books on Kant were written in the 1930s and 1950s. In another group most students supported being taught by someone who was a leader in the field. One student commented that a researcher in the field could be more critical of a student's work. It was noted that, despite some teachers not being the best, knowing that they were leaders in the field made it worthwhile working hard to get the most out of the tutorials. A student in another group said that he had had a low expectation of the quality of the teaching, because lecturers were not recruited for their teaching ability but their research ability. Another commented that being an expert in the field was more important than having good teachers.


  Mr Willis asked about the quality of teaching. There was agreement that the quality of teaching was generally high. However, it was pointed out that some of the lecturers and tutors would have benefited from teacher training. It was noted that most colleges offered optional training. The students in one group considered that teacher training should be made compulsory for new tutors. A student in another group was happy with the quality of the teaching, and another commented that students usually received good tuition. One student commented that the quality of teaching was not good enough. He pointed out that students paid £3,000 per year and would be in debt until they were 30 years old. He continued that eight out of 10 tutors were good, but was concerned that that he was taught by some graduate students who were not qualified to teach.

  Dr Harris also asked whether the students were satisfied with the quality of teaching they received. One student said that a request that lectures be podcast as reference material had been refused. The students in the groups considered that this decision reflected resistance to change by lecturers who liked an audience to perform to. The students all agreed that the opportunity for question and answer sessions at the end of lectures—although not universally offered—was a valued element of teaching provision.


  Dr Harris asked for the students' views on the structure of their degree programme. All the students in one group agreed that they worked intensively during each 8-week term and that they undertook a considerable amount of work outside of term time. Two students said they took only two weeks off from academic studies during the long summer break. Students explained that their lectures were supplemented by tutorials—in which they were likely to be taught in pairs—and private study.

  Dr Harris asked whether the students were satisfied with the examination structure. One student saw the current system of sitting final examinations at the end of the degree programme as optimal. Two students expressed a preference for Oxford's examination structure to be reformed such that examinations in each year of a degree programme contributed towards the degree class awarded. One student considered that the university had recognised the need for change as coursework was beginning to feature more prominently as a component of individual degree programmes.

  Dr Harris commented that drop-out rates at Oxford were relatively low. One student suggested that this was because students struggled through due to pressure from the university and that the drop-out figures hid the number of students that took a respite year in order to recover from the extreme stress that the short teaching term inflicted. These students either repeated a year or continued their degree programme at the point they left it.


  Dr Harris asked the students whether they considered that having a degree from Oxford would be advantageous in terms of their future employment prospects. In response the students pointed out that the tutorial system provided for the development of written and oral communication skills. One student suggested that, in the current job market, employers would be less interested in a prospective employee's degree class and the higher education institution relative to the candidate's ability to demonstrate core communication skills and work experience relevant to the employment opportunity. Several students considered that an upper second honours from the University of Oxford indicated a higher level of academic achievement that an upper second honours from a non-Oxbridge university. They agreed that an Oxbridge degree indicated a different type of "learning experience".


  Dr Harris asked whether the students recognised plagiarism as a problem. No students were aware of plagiarism taking place amongst the undergraduate population. It was agreed that it would be more trouble than it was worth and that the close relationship between undergraduate student and supervisor would mean that plagiarism would be immediately identifiable. Several students pointed out that it would be difficult to submit plagiarised work for assessment. In particular, studies in disciplines such as English were self-directed and it would be unlikely that other individuals would be undertaking the same programme of work. It was also suggested that plagiarism would be self-defeating in the long-term as tutorial essays did not contribute to degree results and individuals' examination performance was likely to be adversely affected by lack of engagement with background material.

  Students in one group explained that in the undergraduate population it was common practice for students to look at one another's essays. It was agreed that the university had clearly laid out what did and did not constitute plagiarism, and one student reported that plagiarism would be very difficult as supervisors invariably set different essay title to one another. Students were aware of the existence of computer systems to identify plagiarised work, and cited peer review as defence against scientific fraud.

  One student in another group said that plagiarism was not socially acceptable and all students in the group agreed that supervisors would instantly recognise the content of two essays as being the same. They noted that supervisors often set different essay titles and, as tutorial work was not assessed, saw little point in attempting to plagiarise work. It was also agreed that even if plagiarism went unnoticed it would not be possible to defend this content orally when grilled in supervisions. It was suggested that it would be relatively easy to copy laboratory reports unnoticed, however, and that plagiarism generally would be easier to get away with in science subjects.

March 2009

1   Oxford University Students Union. Back

2   Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Back

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