Colleges urged 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."

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.

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 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.

n Teachers are increasingly an endangered species, according to a study published yesterday to back a "substantial" pay claim for classroom staff.

Too few young teachers are being taken on to balance those likely to retire in the next 10 to 15 years, suggests analysis of recruitment figures by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of Liverpool University. The study, commissioned by the National Union of Teachers, found that two-thirds of staff were over 40 and one in five was over 50. Only 17 per cent are under 30.

Ministers hope proposals for performance-related pay in their Green Paper on the future of teaching will make the job more attractive to graduates.

The joint submission by six unions to the School Teachers' Pay Review Body does not specify a figure for the pay claim, but makes plain staff will accept a settlement only if it is above the inflation rate.