Education: NUS awakes to consumer rights: Academics have welcomed a union charter telling them the standards students expect, reports Michael Durham

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The Independent Online
IT IS not every day that a National Union of Students' initiative is greeted by vice-chancellors as 'fantastic', 'extremely positive' and 'eminently sensible'. But that is what happened this week.

The lauded document is the NUS Student Charter, the latest offering on the modern altar of consumer satisfaction. This slim volume was published yesterday, to general acclaim from academics more used to groaning over unrealistic proposals.

It has been brought out at a time when the NUS feels under threat, facing a gelding at the hands of the Government as its 'closed shop' status is questioned. It is also appearing in the climate of the Conservatives' own Citizen's Charter. The NUS has taken the opportunity to present a shopping list for 'quality', from the clients' point of view.

'We argue that students should not be the ones to suffer when things go wrong,' the charter states. Lorna Fitzsimmons, president of the NUS, said yesterday: 'Students as consumers have a right to quality, education, equivalence and choice. Our charter sets out recommendations for change based on these principles.'

Among its proposals are:

Higher education league tables.

Students to be compensated if colleges do not come up to agreed standards.

Higher education ombudsmen.

Financial redress for students whose grant cheques arrive late.

A semester system, with students able to choose two out of three 15-week terms.

Proper childcare facilities and broader admissions policies.

Feedback from students on teaching quality and facilities.

Compensation for students unable to find accommodation.

If the NUS hoped to pre-empt the Government's version of a charter, it seems to have succeeded as far as the universities and colleges are concerned. 'We think it's pretty good,' said Stuart Melhuish, director of communications at John Moores University, Liverpool (formerly Liverpool Polytechnic). 'It's an extremely positive statement, a good reaction from the NUS considering the situation they find themselves in. The education institutions and the NUS are now moving together in the same direction. That can only be a good thing.'

In the age of charters, many universities and colleges, including John Moores, have been trying to draw up charters of their own. Mr Melhuish reeled off a list of headings similar to the NUS shopping list. If the NUS document is taken seriously, it will save many institutions the trouble of grappling with the issue themselves.

'What makes the NUS initiative so important is that there is a collective student input. The NUS has become a consumer organisation,' said Mr Melhuish.

The NUS lays much stress on educational quality. At a time when marks are being awarded to universities by the Government for their performance, the institutions are similarly focusing on educational quality, Hence the central proposals, on 'learner agreements' and teaching quality, are ones that vice-chancellors and directors can agree with. Students, the charter states, should set their own achievement targets, to be checked against national guidelines. They should have a right of redress if colleges fail to meet their side of the bargain; they should not have to pay for improvements in teaching equipment and study aids; and they should be given constant and effective support, to help to prevent them dropping out.

Student input into decisions on teaching methods and facilities should be encouraged; students should have the right to compensation if bad teaching persists; and finally, although by no means stating the obvious, all teaching staff should be trained to teach.

Practical and equitable rearrangements of student finance have met widespread approval. It is not, after all, universities and colleges that are at fault when grant cheques fail to arrive on time - it is the responsibility of local education authorities. Students, the NUS says, should receive interest on their money for every day that their grant fails to turn up.

Similarly, students should be compensated with a day's free accommodation for every night they have to spend at the beginning of term on the floor of a gymnasium or common room because there are no rooms available. The colleges say they are acutely aware of the problem and would like to fix it - if only the Government would let them spend the money.

Some colleges already go part of the way towards meeting the students' proposals on accommodation and financial matters. Graham Chandler, registrar at Nottingham University, said: 'If we have to put people up in emergency accommodation, we provide it without charge. If students are really stuck and have to go into a hotel for a couple of weeks, we subsidise them so they don't lose out financially.

'As for grant cheques, I'd support any scheme that helped to make sure that they arrived on time. We have been talking about this kind of thing for ages.'

Nottingham, like some other universities, has not attempted to draw up its own students' charter, but has concentrated on setting out its policies and general information in handbooks and leaflets to make sure that students know their entitlements. But the university expects to work closely with local student representatives to consider the NUS proposals.

Some suggestions would be expensive and difficult to implement in practice. The NUS plea for flexibility, for example, with more modular courses, course credits for community and student-union work and a choice of study periods, earns general approval. But it would still be difficult to extend it to those studying to be doctors or lawyers and other students on professional courses. 'Where we can do it, we will,' said Professor Sir Michael Thompson, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University. 'It is a good idea.'

There is one intriguing omission from the document, which signals the spirit of the times. Nowhere does it mention the old battle cry, 'Full grants for all as of right.' In short, the academics say, a positive and sensible document from a union more accustomed to criticism than acclaim.

(Photograph omitted)

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