Colleges told to treat students as consumers

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The Independent Online
UNIVERSITIES MUST begin to treat students as consumers and deal with their complaints much more quickly, Baroness Blackstone, the Higher Education minister, said yesterday. Parts of the complaints system at universities were "archaic", with some cases taking up to 15 years to resolve, she told the annual conference of the vice-chancellors' committee.

All universities have been reviewing their procedures since the need for reform was emphasised in the Dearing review of higher education, which led to the introduction of tuition fees for students. But Lady Blackstone told the conference at the University of Wolverhampton's Telford campus that two and a half years later a few institutions were still dragging their feet. "The way complaints are handled says a good deal about how a university views its students and its readiness to put right what has gone wrong.

"All students have a legitimate interest in quality and standards in teaching. They and their parents are increasingly critical consumers. That means the quality of teaching must be high across the board."

In old universities the final court of appeal for complaints is the visitor, who may be, for example, the Queen, a bishop or the Privy Council. Lady Blackstone later told a briefing that new procedures would deal with complaints so quickly and effectively that the "archaic visitor system" would not be required. At present, she added, there were no plans to change the visitor system as that would require legislation.

Professor Howard Newby, the committee's president and the vice-chancellor of Southampton University, said that pressure might be brought to bear on those universities failing to introduce the procedures desired by the committee. "It is not in our interests to have complaints procedures that lack credibility," he said.

Professor Newby added that while nearly all vice-chancellors wanted performance-related pay for university teachers and other staff, many universities did not yet have performance-related appraisal schemes in place. "Appraisal of performance in teaching would play a part in performance- related pay but exam results would not," he said. Students were already asked to assess lecturers in some universities and their views would form part of a system of performance-related pay, he said.

Professor Newby said he expected more universities to follow the example of Bristol, which has promised to give more careful consideration to applicants from schools that traditionally do badly at A-level, but he stressed that such policies should not affect degree standards, which should be "rigorously maintained".

Lady Blackstone also said that widening participation in higher education remained the cornerstone of the Government's policy. She announced a near- trebling of access fund bursaries, available before students start courses, from pounds 2.2m to pounds 6.3m. A further pounds 12m will be added to access funds to help students once courses begin - an increase of 20 per cent.