Complaints, complaints

Some years ago, as I was passing the (thus described) ‘Student Service Desk’ at a university I shall not name, I noticed that above the desk was a poster with this biblical quote:

‘Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer.’ (St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 10, verse 10)

As I suspect most people will accept, universities cannot adopt this particular attitude, even in jest. But what attitude should they have? The question is topical because this is the time of year when, in the England and Wales, the university ombudsman (Office of the Independent Adjudicator) releases the figures for student complaints. Over recent years there has been an annual sharp increase, every year, in the relevant figures. This year the increase is 33 per cent, and the OIA outs this down in part to a more ‘consumerist’ frame of mind on the part of students. If this is so, then in the light of the new fees in England one might expect that there will be further increases next year in that jurisdiction.

The head of the office is reported to have put it like this:

‘There has been a lot of policy discussion about fees in the past year and it’s concentrated students’ minds into thinking about the merits of what they’re getting. It’s encouraged them to be more like consumers – and consumers are more likely to complain.’

That particular assessment may be confirmed by developments elsewhere. In the United States, for example, the greatest increase in student complaints is in the for-proft higher education sector.

In England, many complaints are about procedural fairness, where the student believes that the process by which decisions were reached was not fair. A typical complaint can be about the length of time it took to take a decision, inadequate communication of the process or the decision, or administrative inefficiency. The problem is, of course, that funding cuts are likely to exacerbate these problems, which can often be the product of an over-burdened administration or academic staff.

It is entirely appropriate that students should be encouraged to assert their rights. However, good processes need proper planning and resources. In reality what makes decisions fair and efficient are the very things that are often the first victims of cuts. Muddling on in the hope that things will get better is not an effective solution. As the traditional assumptions about university resourcing and the deployment of these resources are coming under attack, a new framework for student support will have to be considered.

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6 Comments on “Complaints, complaints”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I’m curious, what precisely is the legal relationship between a student and his college.
    In that they are asserting a complaint of what to who exactly. Is there not an aspect of the thumb hit by the hammer complaining about the attitude of the hand holding the hammer when executing the strike on the nail.

    • Jilly Says:

      It’s a good question Vincent. My understanding has always been that it’s basically a contractual relationship, in which both the college and the student are understood to have made certain commitments to each other. Indeed, I believe some universities are now formalising that concept by introducing written contracts in 1st year, signed by both parties.

      Therefore, students do sometimes have valid grounds for complaint – but it also has to be said that in many instances, those complaining are also those who haven’t upheld their end of the contract either. Case-by-case basis is the only way to assess the complaints made. Sheer volume doesn’t prove much.

  2. Roddy Says:

    The student as consumer is concerning and it impacts in a number of different ways. Not least it creates or enhances an element of internal conflict where individuals drive ahead with ‘innovations’ designed primarily to ensure that they are not singled out for criticism or complaint. This is at the expense of the more beneficial and collegial development that is broadly based and much needed.

  3. Steve B Says:

    Welcome to the real world where the customer is King.
    If Universities are charging up to £9,000 per year and are increasingly taking onboard commercial behaviours then the students as customers will demand value for money and then institutions hopefully will become much more accountable.

    This is perhaps the only positive thing to come out of the rush to charge as much as they can get away with.
    Universities seem to want things all ways. Act as a semi-commercial entity but at the same time retain their Academic aloofness’ and freedom from public scrutiny.
    If you are charging the maximum fee then expect to be challenged on everything and make sure that your customer service is up to scratch.

  4. Roger Mullin Says:

    Not a new issues, but one swept under the carpet by some institutions. Universities can’t have it both ways, wanting to introduce (in Scotland) or raise fees but yet retaining a non-customer relationship with those paying.

    As chair of a university student union trustee board, I actually doubt if most students want a mere transactional relationship. Good education, they understand, includes fiduciary relationships with staff and institution.

    The problem, and I think it is a real problem, is the overall change in learning culture that will take place as a result of commercialisation, which may diminsh rather than enhance the educational experience.

  5. cormaccormac Says:

    “Welcome to the real world where the customer is King.” The trouble with this view is that ignores the fact that a student is a very unusual type of customer; a car buyer wants the best car for his money, but most students want a qualification with the minimum of work. No student has ever voted for more dificult exams. So while student concerns should never be ignored, the ‘students know best’ mantra ignores the fact that students aren’t always aware that the reputation of of their qualification depends on high standards of their college


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