The Big Question: Why are students complaining so much, and do they have a case?

Why are we asking this now?

The new students' "Ombudsman" has revealed a big growth in the numbers of students complaining about university standards in his annual report published yesterday. Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, revealed that the number of complaints had risen to 900 – a 23 per cent rise on the figure for 2007. In addition, the number of complaints considered eligible for investigation rose, too, from 600 in 2007 to 734 in 2008.

Why the increase?

Many academics and university administrators felt that the introduction of top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year in 2006 would make students more insistent that they should receive "value for money" in terms of the teaching quality they receive when attending university – and felt it would turn their "ivory towers" into more consumer-based institutions. Now the feeling is that the number of complaints will rise again with the ever-decreasing employment prospects for students as a result of the recession. Only one in five final-year students are currently anticipating getting a graduate-related job this autumn.

What are the students complaining about?

The majority of complaints were about academic status, ie students' degree passes. These accounted for 65 per cent of the complaints received by the OIA (582). They included cases such as one where a student complained that they would have got a higher degree if lecturers had not gone on strike over pay during their finals' year. This complaint was rejected by the IOA.

One upheld was where a student and most of the cohort on their degree course complained about the quality of teaching. The IOA investigated the complaint and ruled that the university had not "punctually and appropriately" investigated the complaint and awarded the student £3,500 in compensation.

Other complaints were about "service issues" – contractual obligations on the part of the university that were not honoured, such as one from a student whose halls of residence were being renovated as she tried to revise for her finals – a time, she said, when she needed a noiseless environment in which to study. A third prominent category was over plagiarism with students complaining they did not have enough opportunity to rebut allegations that they had cheated.

Which students were most likely to complain?

Most of the complaints were from UK-based students. But the percentage of complaints from overseas students outside the EU (who have to pay full-cost fees) was 22 per cent when they only supply 10 per cent of the cohort. As the IOA report said: "No doubt the differential fee rates for international students compared to UK domiciled students is relevant here." Those on post-graduate courses were more likely to complain (in percentage terms) than undergraduates.

Which courses figured most prominently?

The largest number of complaints came from students on business and administration courses (148) followed by medicine (116), law (115), social studies (72) and education (55). "To some extent the distribution of complaints by numbers reflects subject enrolments," says the report. However it adds: "The requirement that students on medicine-related, law and education courses must fulfil fitness-to-practice requirements if they are to pursue vocational careers creates an additional 'hurdle' and is another explanation for the large number of complaints in these subjects."

Should there be concern over teaching standards?

According to the figures, the number of justifiable complaints, ie that have been upheld, has fallen from 11 per cent in 2007 to just 7 per cent in 2008. In addition, the report points out that – while there were 900 complaints – there are 1.9 million students at higher education institutions in England and Wales (which are within the remit of the IOA).

Do universities handle complaints effectively?

The majority do, according to the report, but the shortcomings shown by a minority can have a serious detrimental effect on the student.

On plagiarism, for instance, Mr Behrens said: "In a small number of cases, students have been denied natural justice through conflicts of interest in overlapping membership of misconduct and appeals panels. There is also evidence of some students being denied the opportunity to put their case in person, or being required to 'prove' their innocence when universities have a responsibility to demonstrate that the case is proven." In other words, these universities are not wised up to dealing with the more litigious nature of today's student. Vice-chancellors acknowledge that they will have to pay more attention to teaching quality in future.

What will motivate them to do that?

The list of pressures they face to ensure adequate teaching standards is growing. For a start, there is the annual student satisfaction survey which gives every opportunity to students to rate their case – the results of which can be fervently scanned by anyone seeking to apply to university the following year. Various university league tables, including the one published by The Independent last month, also rank universities on a student satisfaction indicator. These pressures have already led to allegations, in particular by Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic council at the University of London – Britain's largest university – and now of the University of Buckingham, that degree standards are in danger of collapsing. Lecturers, he argues, are under pressure to "mark positively" and turn a blind eye to cheating to ensure a high ranking for their institutions in the league tables.

Will universities now give teaching standards a priority?

Vice-chancellors face a dilemma: their funding levels depend more on their research rating – therefore the question always arises: should they devote more time to pursuing excellence in research rather than monitor teaching standards.

So what changes can we expect to see?

The complaints come at a time of immense change for universities. Currently they are awaiting the setting up of a government review of top-up fees – designed to report after the next general election. It is expected to recommend an increase in the fee-level – a recent survey said the average vice-chancellor would like to see a doubling of the level to £6,500 a year. That, of course, would bring its own pressures and be likely to lead to more demand from students for institutions to provide "value for money".

In other words, it would turn the universities into more consumer-led institutions where the increasing pressure to get top-level degree passes lead to a more focused teaching to the degree at the expense of broadening their horizons. A key element of the university league tables might then become the column that shows the relative success or failure of each institution in securing a job for its graduates.

So are students poorly served?

Yes...

* Many universities devote more time to securing research funding than to monitoring teaching standards.

* The cost of a university education – coupled with the lack of graduate-level jobs – means students now look for 'value for money'.

* There is evidence of 'serious delay' in dealing with students' complaints.

No...

* The IOA report says the number of justifiable complaints is down from 11 per cent in 2007 to just seven in 2008.

* Complainants tend to be those who have spent more on their degree courses, ie international students.

* The rise in complaints could just be attributable to the fact the IOA has now become better known to students.

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