10 April 2008

Between Two Stools You fall to the Ground

Just following up from the Naomi Sugai affair I mentioned the other day, I was interested to see a short but telling piece on the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in today's Independent.
Student complaints about their treatment by universities rocketed in the year after the introduction of top-up fees, according to a watchdog.

They rose by 25 per cent during 2007 to 734, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) disclosed yesterday. Figures also show the number of complaints upheld also rose significantly from 19 per cent to 26 per cent. The biggest rise was among mature students.

Most of the complaints for 2007 were made in the first half of the year when students having to pay top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year were in their first full year at university.

However, many of the complaints were about examination results with students realising that a 2.2 degree was not enough to find a good job.

"The rise in complaints is due to many more students challenging their degree and exam results," said Baroness Deech of the OIA. "This is probably because there are so many graduates emerging onto the job market now that graduating with, say, a lower second, is insufficient for success."

Students are increasingly aware of the complaints procedures, she added. Years of rising debt levels among students culminating in the introduction of top-up fees have also made them demand more value for money, according to academics and student leavers. In all, 64 per cent of the complaints were related to degree or exam results – while 11 per cent were over disciplinary proceedings and accusations of plagiarism. The OIA recommended that universities pay £173,000 in compensation as a result.

The OIA is recommending that universities set up their own "campus ombudsmen" so that complaints could be dealt with more swiftly and simply.

It's interesting that so many of those complaining are postgraduates and mature students; I'm sure their willingness to complain isn't simply due to them having more at stake than undergrads. Rather, I suspect, it's simply the fact that their age and experience makes them less susceptible to bullying or being messed around; that's not to say that it makes them invulnerable, just that they're perhaps more likely to try to speak up when things are going wrong.

That's not to say that the issue of value for money isn't an important one. Universities constantly justify their actions nowadays by saying that the modern world demands that they be run like businesses -- think of University vice-chancellors and presidents claiming as a matter of course that they should be paid in line with the salaries that CEOs. That's fine, though it rather demands that the universities be run like well-run businesses, and that the students are treated either as valued customers or as stakeholders in the business. Unfortunately, it seems that these truths elude far too many universities.

The OIA's recommendation about campus ombudsmen seems almost too obvious, really, and indeed it's a point that Baroness Deech sensibly made a week or so back, describing a campus ombudsman as 'someone who sits on campus behind an open door and is ready to sort out students' grievances at an early stage... we believe it's a very good idea'.

Of course, like all these things, the office will only be as good as the person holding it. The real problem with the universities is often not so much that they've not got mechanisms to deal with problems, it's that the mechanisms aren't properly applied, and then their misapplication is condoned and approved of by people higher up the chain, effectively institutionalising what might charitably be deemed bad practice.

Baroness Deech is retiring this month; I'm pleased to see that her successor Rob Behrens will be a full-time appointment. He looks promising.

Of course, I've made the mistake of assuming that about people in the past.

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