Britain is in danger of losing its reputation for providing a world-class university education because its students work far fewer hours than students in the rest of Europe, a report published today warns.
Students on media studies courses are the least hard-working, spending less than 20 hours a week on their work, the report says, adding that women tend to work harder than men.
The report also shows that more than a quarter of the overseas students at all UK universities say they are getting "poor" value for money on their courses – possibly as a result of receiving far less tuition than their counterparts on the Continent, according to the report's authors.
The paper, written by the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank, warns: "These are potentially very serious findings."
The figures show that students at English universities receive about 14 hours tuition a week and work for about 25.5 to 26 hours a week. This puts it at the bottom of a European league table, which places Portugal top, with students working 41 hours a week. After England, Spain is the country where students expend least effort, devoting an average of 29 hours a week to their work.
The report says: "There is real reason to doubt whether English degrees will be perceived as being of equivalent value to degrees from countries where the requirements on students are more onerous."
Those who spend the least time working are students on communications courses such as media studies with 19.4 hours a week. The longest hours at English universities are put in by veterinary students (37hours ) and those studying medicine and dentistry (35.5).
Women work harder than men – spending 13.3 hours a week on private study compared with men's 11.7 hours, the report adds.
Bahram Bekhradnia, its co-author, said: "Boys, it would seem, are in the pub while girls are in the library."
As a result, the report adds, women are more likely to get higher degree passes than boys.
Mr Bekhradnia added that the figures showed that most undergraduates at English universities were really only part-time students.
The researchers say their findings are bound to increase pressure on English universities "to explain how their shorter, less intensive courses match those elsewhere in Europe".
The report adds: "These findings, together with the finding that a worrying proportion of international students (27 per cent) believe they receive poor value for money and the fact that fees in this country are so much higher than in most other countries make our international student market vulnerable.
"A decline in that market could seriously impact the finances of a great many universities."
University vice-chancellors warned last night against reading too much into the report, stressing that the length of time spent studying did not equate to quality of learning.
A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, added: "We would caution against coming to any sweeping conclusions based on the survey's limited sample size and because the results relate mostly to feedback from first-year students who are only in their second term."