University tuition fees have risen nine-fold in the past six years, but students are only getting 20 minutes extra a week with lecturers as a result, according to new research.
The study raises fresh questions about standards, revealing that on average an undergraduate at an English university spends about 900 hours a year on their studies, around 300 hours less than recommended by the university watchdog.
Studying for a degree at an English university is still "more like a part-time than a full-time job", according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), which co-authored the report.
The 2013 Student Academic Experience survey, produced by HEPI and Which?, shows the total student workload - both time spent in lectures and private study - now averages about 30 hours a week, equivalent to around 900 hours for each 29-week academic year. This is around 25% less than the 1,200 hours suggested by the Quality Assurance Agency.
HEPI director Bahram Bekhradnia said: "There is an information point here. We do think students need information about how much contact they're getting and why they're getting it. There may be an answer to why you're only getting three or four hours of contact a week, but I think that needs to be clearer to students." He said what was more "interesting and disturbing" was the differences between study hours within subjects.
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: "With an increasingly competitive higher education sector, and soaring tuition fees, it has never been more important for prospective students to get as much information as possible to help them make the right choice. There must be an investigation into the huge variations in the academic experience that we have revealed, and more transparency to ensure students can get the information they need."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: ''We want the best possible match between students and institutions. People must be able to make informed decisions about what and where to study. That's why we introduced the key information set, which compares a range of data at course level on costs satisfaction and outcomes.''
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said: "It is misleading to make a crude assumption that time spent in lectures and seminars can be equated with university course quality. UK university education places an important focus on supporting independent study which will vary from course to course and between individual institutions."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: "It is perhaps not surprising that some students and their parents expect more bang for their increased buck, following the rise in university fees. Frustratingly, despite the hike in fees, universities are not any better off after the Government slashed state support for higher education."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said: "The independent learning required at university is a very different experience from learning at school, so it is important we take the debate away from the narrow confines of contact hours. The workload is rightly demanding at Russell Group universities; students are supported through their studies in different ways and learn in ways that are hard to quantify."