Well, what did you expect?

The burgeoning culture of complaints delivers no surprises for Alan Ryan

June 25, 2009

The usual crabbiness of British higher education has moved up a notch. First, we have reports of an increase in student complaints making it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, then we have Frank Furedi complaining about all this complaining, followed by aggrieved correspondents writing to Times Higher Education to complain about Furedi complaining about all this complaining.

The great thing about this escalation is that all the parties can avoid taking seriously all the boring questions about what higher education is supposed to be achieving, for whom, on what terms and with what resources. Being beastly to each other is more fun. But I find myself at a loss: should I complain about the people who complain about Frank Furedi complaining about the people who complain to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, or not? Does Laurie Taylor know?

Try it the other way. The absolute number of complaints was - from a population of about 2 million students - very small. If you were making cars, you'd be happy with fewer than 1,000 complaining customers out of 2 million, especially if only one in 14 had a case. But we aren't making cars - which is just as well, given the present state of the car industry - and the number of complaints doesn't tell you very much.

Most universities have elaborate procedures for listening to the anxieties and unhappinesses of their students. This is partly because it's part of quality assurance, but more because we are all covered by the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act, which between them mean that we have to operate squeaky clean and transparent procedures - especially for terminating students' academic careers, with all that that entails for their futures.

By the time complaints get to the OIA they will have spent a long time - I am tempted to say an "inordinate" length of time, but doing justice is a slow process - winding their way through one committee after another and one hearing after another, often with the not always helpful assistance of solicitors hired by angry parents.

The small number that make it to the OIA are not a good guide to the numbers that are settled earlier, or to the general level of student happiness. Some students, of course, bypass the OIA and head straight for the High Court. This is a high-risk option, because the court is likely to look unkindly on a plaintiff who has not pursued all the remedies available before that stage. But some students have trouble recognising their own inability to live on reasonable terms with their peers and the anger that makes that difficult can make them imprudent.

Because the OIA cannot second-guess the academic judgment of universities - and the High Court says it will not do so either - it cannot give most complainants what they really want, which is either a degree or a degree of a higher class than they have been awarded. Still, their unhappiness is not the product of a culture of complaint or a confusion between being a student and being a consumer, nor in general the result of academics being unwilling to try to teach students what they need.

The trouble lies with two points of tension; these are no one's fault and they are not easy to remove. Because a degree has become a certificate of employability - and in many cases a 2.1 is a requirement for employment - success and failure turn on decisions about whether a student is above or below a highly debatable line. If the requirement were for a 2.2, the same problem would arise for other students. If your hopes for a career will be dashed if you accept the lower class or none, you have nothing to lose by appealing.

The newer and growing problem is that we have aroused unrealisable expectations about the value of graduate degrees. The right to award graduate degrees is the mark of being a university, so too many places that haven't got the resources to run a doctoral programme struggle to do it, and they disproportionately get students whose aptitude for graduate work is marginal. Few of us like admitting that we have taken on students we shouldn't, and even fewer like confronting a student with the fact that we have made a mistake, so the risk of students wasting their time and money is obviously high.

But even in the best of environments, graduate life is inherently hard on students. Their supervisors regard them with deep ambivalence and these sentiments are returned. On the one hand, they are - so we tell them - adults, competent thinkers in their own right, free agents emancipated from the leading strings of undergraduate instruction who can be left to get on with it. On the other hand - as we also tell them - they are apprentices, a long way from the competence that entitles their opinions to respect; young people from whom we expect a proper degree of deference and a readiness to accept our judgment of their work.

So what must they think of us? The surprise is not that there are so many complaints, but that there so few.

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