Universities must learn to listen

More and more students are complaining about courses. A survey shows that many are being ignored By Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Culture
Complaints by students about the quality of their teaching, the supervision they receive and the way their work is assessed are increasing all the time. A new survey of assistant registrars and student unions shows that almost three-quarters - that's 74 per cent - of universities report that complaints are rising. Yet 28 per cent of institutions still have no formal student complaints procedure.

In today's higher education market-place students - both undergraduates and postgraduates - have become more demanding. Aware of their rights and perhaps mindful of the pounds 1,000 tuition fee being introduced this autumn, students are increasingly behaving like consumers.

But universities are responding painfully slowly to the changing climate, according to Don Staniford, who conducted the survey for the National Postgraduate Committee. The first survey carried out for the old Higher Education Quality Council in 1996 found that 44 per cent of institutions did not have a complaints procedure. So, things appear to have improved.

However, Staniford says in his report: "A figure of 28 per cent is still unsatisfactory and goes against the recent Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' guidance which states that it is extremely important that every university should have a suitable internal complaints machinery for students that is widely known and can be easily invoked."

He also found that universities weren't exactly helping students to use the complaints mechanisms. That was because they didn't always publicise them well. Some were better than others. Liverpool John Moores, for example, displays its procedures prominently. So does the University of Central Lancashire, Leicester and Bangor. But York only makes reference to complaints procedures in the student handbook and does not say what they are. Exeter students' union's overriding impression is that complaints procedures are "badly publicised".

Some institutions seem to deliberately make it difficult for students to complain, Staniford concludes. One students' union, which prefers to remain anonymous, said: "You ask whether this procedure is made available to students. You will notice that I have sent you a photocopy rather than an original. This is because the leaflet has not been published recently and I cannot get my hands on any copies of it other than the one office copy I use. If I can't get hold of copies, then I very much doubt if students can. The procedure is therefore not widely available, though I am assured repeatedly that a new print run is imminent."

The majority of student unions - 69 per cent - told Staniford that their complaints procedures were not coping with the type of complaints being received. That contrasts with the 88 per cent of assistant registrars who thought their systems were coping in the 1996 HEQC survey. The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is planning another survey to compare the views of student unions and assistant registrars at the same institution.

Asked whether they considered their complaints procedures to be effective, 79 per cent of student unions said no. Sheffield Hallam, for example, said: "Students unaware of procedure often don't want to `rock the boat' by invoking it, or see it as a waste of time."

There is an alarming disparity in relation to the quantity and quality of complaints procedures, according to the survey. Some are a few lines in a prospectus or on the Web - such as at Exeter and Newcastle - whereas South Bank's procedures cover nine pages and Northumbria's 12.

In his report on higher education last year, Lord Dearing said it was important that students' complaints were taken seriously. Universities should not only have complaints procedures that were "transparent and timely" they also should enable students to appeal to an independent person if they were dissatisfied with the way the university had dealt with the complaints. That person could review the way the case was handled and the decision taken. "Where the complaint is particularly serious, the independent individual should be drawn from outside the institution," Lord Dearing added.

That recommendation has led to the vice-chancellors' committee suggesting some kind of external arbitration for complaints and the National Union of Students (NUS) and National Postgraduate Committee recommending an Ombudsman. The latter idea worries some experts as it could prolong disputes and could be expensive. It also would conflict with current legal structures which, broadly speaking, mean students in old universities can appeal to the Visitor, and students in the old universities can use the courts for judicial review. Legally, the Visitor's decision is final.

In the final analysis, universities, as independent bodies, are not bound to adopt any form of external appeal mechanism. In response to Lord Dearing, however, the Department for Education and Employment has taken action by giving universities two years to review and overhaul their complaints systems. If other machinery is needed, it will be looked at after their review.

Meanwhile the NUS has mounted a survey into complaints and academic appeals at 150 higher-education institutions. The results will be published in November with the NPC-survey results, followed by best-practice guides and a seminar in December to train student-union officers. All of which should help to reform the current patchy system of making complaints in the universities. Whether it will mean the end of acrimonious and long-drawn-out complaints such as Don Staniford's own (above) is doubtful.

John Randall, chief executive of higher education's Quality Assurance Agency, believes that drawing attention to complaints mechanisms and setting up bureaucracies to handle them, does not necessarily result in improvements. He has experience of the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau set up by the Law Society to handle complaints. "The time taken to hear complaints stretched into months and years as the system was overwhelmed," he says. "The priority ought to be in getting the matter dealt with within the institution wherever possible. If that means improving the internal institutional procedures, then that's where the effort ought to go."

There are some universities that have a long way to go, Randall says. Higher education institutions have been warned.