Leader: Customer care or collegiality?

August 19, 2005

Even before the advent of top-up fees, consumer culture is changing the relationship between universities and students. Our survey shows a sharp rise in the number of student complaints since 2002-03. Many are about exam results, but others cover everything from the price of a cappuccino to inadequate lecture halls. Institutions pay out thousands of pounds in compensation, but the real cost is in staff time dealing with the two thirds of claims that are not upheld.

Some of the cases may appear comical - are universities really expected to refund bus fares every time a lecture has to be cancelled? - but others represent the modern world catching up with higher education. Who would deny that graduates are entitled to compensation if their courses turn out not to have the accreditation that was promised? Even the £9,000 paid to Graham McAnuff and his fellow osteopathy students at Oxford Brookes University is hardly excessive if they cannot practise the skills they acquired. Few administrators doubt that the volume of complaints will grow further when fees rise to £3,000 a year. Even though students'

parents will no longer be paying directly, they are sure to encourage their children to demand better value for money. Complaints procedures are much more accessible than they once were and the very existence of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator may encourage disgruntled students to use all the avenues at their disposal. They may lose, but it will not cost them anything to register their dissatisfaction.

The new culture is bound to breed resentment among academics and administrators, who perceive the system as weighted in favour of students.

The natural caution that this encourages can sour relationships and work against students in the long run. But higher education was never going to be immune from the trend towards litigation that pervades other walks of life. Like it or not, universities and colleges will have to get used to it. They have not always provided good service in the past and, until recently, have not made it easy for aggrieved students to secure justice.

The challenge will be to ensure that the balance does not swing so far that the collegial basis of student and academic life is lost.

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