Student charters

A recent development in the United Kingdom has been the establishment of a working group to produce guidance for developing student charters. The initiative comes from David Lammy, Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, and the group is to be co-chaired by the President of the National Union of Students and a Vice-Chancellor representing Universities UK (Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University). In announcing the group, the Minister explained the intention behind it as follows:

‘The most important element of higher education is its students. As we said in Higher Ambitions, to make the right choice about where to study and to get the best out of their time at university, students need good quality information about what to expect and what’s required of them. Today’s announcement is the next step towards a better deal for students. Since the introduction of variable fees, students have rightly become more focused on the return they get from their own investment in their future. Higher education is a two-way process involving a partnership between the student and their institution and it is fitting that the membership of the group reflects this.’

The idea of a student charter is in part a reflection of the changing nature of what it is to be a student. Where students make a financial contribution (as of course they also do in Ireland through the Student Services Charge) they may expect that what they get for this – and for the wider taxpayer investment – should be set out in a transparent manner. On the whole this case has been accepted.

The problem is perhaps that the charter concept fundamentally alters the student-staff relationship as traditionally understood. Put simply, this was based on the idea that student needs are met on the basis of staff goodwill. This has allowed the majority of students to receive guidance and support way beyond what any reasonable charter could determine. On the other hand, some (though one hopes a small minority) of students have not received the support they should have been entitled to expect, and have not always had clarity about how (or sometimes whether) this could be remedied. A charter – with provisions on complaints procedures – creates a higher level of transparency.

There is a part of me that regrets that it should be necessary to create such a formal legalistic relationship between staff and students. But I also believe that we must not be vague about what students have a right to expect and how they can secure it if there is a problem. The best response, I would think, is for universities to be proactive about developing such charters in consultation with students, to maximise the potential for effective and collaborative staff-student relations.

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2 Comments on “Student charters”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I have the feeling that this will leave the Student far worse off overall.
    What should be going on is the development of some method of removal that does not require the Bench of the High Court, as at present. It is ridiculous that in this day and age each Professor acts as Bishop or at least a Cathedral Dean, where they can only be shifted by promotion regardless how much damage they are doing.
    I’m sure all Universities have the position of ‘Secretary of Admin’ Spaces (Attics and Basements)’ or some such which would put the fear of God, much like the mention of tending roses had for Sir Humphrey Appleby, ?.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    An agreement which outlines expectations that the institution has of the student in terms of participation, engagement, commitment, etc and which is balanced by the institution committing to timely feedback, provision of adequate resources, etc is perhaps a better approach rather than a ‘charter’ which is based on the consumer-model. Indeed an explicit statement of expectations and standards could be very useful to many students and staff, particularly for first year courses in managing the transition to higher education.

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