The rise and rise of the student as a consumer

Once they were a financially cosseted elite with little to complain about. Life is no longer so cosy - and now students have something to say about it
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The Independent Online

Universities - even the elite Ivy League - are coming apart at the seams, if the complaint below is typical of the system as a whole. Nottingham is one of the United Kingdom's most sought-after universities. It has a glittering research reputation and attracts students with the best A-level grades. Yet even Nottingham suffers from overcrowded classes, meaning that students have to perch on the end of a desk or sit on the floor.

This is happening at a time when students are becoming more assertive. After all, they are now customers, paying fees of £1,025. "I think students do complain more," says Professor Howard Newby, the president of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Vice-chancellor of Southampton University. "They are adults, and we're not in loco parentis. It is good for the system that students exert their consumer rights."

Ian Pearson, the Labour MP for Dudley South and author of a new pamphlet on higher education from the Social Market Foundation, agrees. "I hope we will get more of these complaints," he says. "I want to see students empowered as customers. I think more students should complain if they feel they're not getting the quality of teaching and other services that they deserve."

Britain used to pride itself on its Rolls-Royce higher education. Unlike our European colleagues we educated a relatively small percentage of the best and brightest, but we did so with style. Fifteen to 20 years ago we did not have overcrowded lecture theatres. Our students had green campuses and small tutorial groups. There was room in the libraries and the drop-out rate was low. That has changed as more and more students have been crammed into space designed for fewer.

During the Nineties, Nottingham's student numbers boomed from 8,800 to 16,000. At the same time its teaching budget, like that of other universities, was squeezed by 3 per cent a year under the Tories and by 1 per cent under New Labour. Flat-rate tuition fees have not helped. The income has simply replaced money that previously came from central government. And universities are penalised if they chose to charge any more.

Professor Newby says: "If a university like Nottingham is having these sort of problems, it is probably a legacy of several years of under-investment in infrastructure."

According to Mr Pearson the complaint from the disgruntled student emphasises the need for change. "The current system is creaking," he says. "Even the best-run universities are experiencing enormous pressures. It is quite clear the status quo is not sustainable."

Nottingham denies it has any serious problems and says the complaint below is an isolated one. But its own Vice-chancellor, Sir Colin Campbell, is advocating that universities be able to charge top-up fees to boost their income and compete with the best American universities. A report on the subject is to be discussed by the Russell group of top universities on 25 May.