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.