I see that Oxford is the latest institution to consider implementing a "learning contract" for its students (1). There are a number of reasons for using such an instrument, although in this report the emphasis is being placed on minimising potential litigation from students paying the new "top up" fees. The contract spells out what is expected of both parties, the institution and the student, during the period of enrolment.
Learning contracts of course are not new and have been used in many universities elsewhere. Often they are linked to attendance policies and try to provide a means of focusing student attention on the expected level of commitment that they should make towards their study. Currently, this is a much discussed topic. There is a feeling that with part-time jobs and relatively bouyant graduate employment levels, that studying is only one of many calls on a student's weekly time and is not necessarily prioritised as it may have been in the past. There is often a more laissez-faire approach to the necessity of attending classes or of putting in extra hours beyond the scheduled class times.
Other types of "learning contract" are used to guide independent study modules/programmes where agreement is reached about objectives, resources and timescales. The power of both is that the student and a member of staff have set aside time to go through what is required in order for the student to succeed and that the student signs a statement of commitment.