Leading article: At last, a voice for the student body

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The Independent Online

The Government's decision to create a minister for students and to establish a students' forum is a good idea. In an age in which an ever-larger proportion of the population goes to university and is paying for the privilege, it makes sense to give students a channel for raising issues of concern. As it is, they suffer in silence. They might grumble to their parents or one another when their director of studies doesn't turn up to an appointment; they might despair at ever being taught by a professor, or being able to find what they need in the library; but until now they haven't had many official places to turn for help. The National Union of Students will be represented on the forum, as will the National Postgraduate Committee. But it is to be hoped that ministers will also tap students who aren't involved in the NUS. The five student juries composed of students around the country should enable them to do that.

If ministers are true to their word and are prepared to respond to the complaints thrown up, we should begin to see some real change in things like the amount of information that is available to potential Masters students about courses or the amount of contact time underegraduates have with lecturers. The increase in student numbers over the past 20 years, without a corresponding increase in cash for teaching them, has put a huge strain on the system. Students do not get the attention at university that their parents did. Often undergraduates at the best universities feel they are little more than a number. The new approach should test whether institutions are doing what they can to give students the teaching and care that they need. "We want this to have genuine teeth," says the new minister for students Lord Triesman.

Whether it does have teeth will depend on the quality of the forum and on how disciplined and hard-working it is. It will need to commission reports and produce serious evidence if it wants to persuade universities to change. One of its first tasks might be to look at the recent Higher Education Policy Institute report, which found that humanities students do less work than similar students in the rest of Europe. Are these students getting a good deal?