Now is the age of the discontented

The consumer culture has contaminated higher education and student complaints are rising. Some academics, fearing litigation or poor assessment, offer flattery instead of feedback. Frank Furedi observes that no one benefits

June 4, 2009

In the current economic climate, higher education faces formidable pressures to restructure itself and cut costs. Inevitably its role and its institutional practices face criticism by policymakers and sections of the media. Recently, such criticisms have often taken the form of publicising students' complaints to call into question the legitimacy of the academy's institutional practices. Although the number of these complaints is tiny (900 in England and Wales in 2008) and the number upheld is smaller still (just 63), there is a growing perception of an explosion of student grievances. Newspapers and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) continually point out that the numbers are rising. Complaints are rarely conveyed as just that, complaints, but are presented as markers of institutional failure.

Increasingly, the complaining student is represented as the personification of civic virtue. At times the very act of making a complaint - regardless of its validity - is interpreted as evidence of the fact that universities must change their ways. How many times have you heard the refrain that "students feel they must get their money's worth" or that "consumer-minded students are more and more aware of their rights"? Consumer consciousness and the impulse to complain are invariably associated with the sacred concepts of "rights". As Rob Behrens, the Independent Adjudicator, has noted, "The bottom line is that students are today more assertive in thinking about what their rights are and what things they can get from the commitments they make." Such representation of student consumerism represents its implicit affirmation. According to Behrens, it is "not a bad thing".

Thus the idealisation of assertive students who are fully conversant with their rights endows the act of complaining with the quality of an inherent virtue. And the exercise of such virtuous behaviour is sometimes interpreted as evidence of some institutional deficit in higher education. So it was that a recent editorial in The Sunday Times exclaimed that "Britain's students are revolting - and with good reasons" before asserting "that the state of teaching in some of our universities is shocking".

The conceptual leap from the act of complaining to the denunciation of the "shocking" state of university teaching is informed by the application of the consumer model of education. From this perspective, the dissatisfied customer serves as proof of institutional failure. It is self-evident that since the customer is always right, something must be done to respond to the complaint. The growing significance that policymakers and university administrators attach to student-satisfaction surveys is symptomatic of the ascendancy of a consumerist ethos on campuses.

In practice, the embrace of this ethos implies a role reversal between the authority of the teacher and the student. The authority of the customer trumps that of the service provider. Therefore, it is the opinion of the students and not the academic that determines the position of a university in the league table. Accordingly, if students assess their experience positively, then their university is judged to be a wonderful place of learning.

Of course the reality is that the customer is not always right, especially in higher education. What counts as a good student experience - friendly atmosphere, progressive marking, lots of spoon-feeding, great social life - may have little to do with the provision of a challenging and high-quality education. Is it bad manners to point out the obvious fact that students are often not in a position to distinguish between run-of-the-mill and quality education? The ability to discriminate and assess the quality of an academic experience is the product of years of hard work. That is why what surveys tend to indicate is how well customers' expectations are managed rather than the quality of academic life.

It is also the case that the ethos of consumerism directly contradicts the fundamental premise of an academic education. From the standpoint of service providers, the customer is always right. It is not the service providers' job to question or challenge the tastes and values of potential customers. By contrast, academics are often in the business of educating their students' tastes and encouraging them to question their values. Indeed, one of the most distinct and significant dimensions of academic and intellectual activity is that it does not often give customers what they want. Academic dialogue and instruction does not provide the customer with a clearly defined product. It does not seek to offer what the customer wants, but attempts to provide what the student needs. That is why forcing universities to prove themselves to their customers fundamentally contradicts the ethos of academic education.

The celebration of the assertion of customer interests is part of a misguided attempt to hold higher education to account according to the doctrine of value for money. It is misguided because the customer model's implicit assumption of a conflict of interest between client and service provider inexorably erodes the relationship of trust between teacher and student on which academic enterprise is founded.

It is also misguided because rather than improving the quality of university education, the advocacy and institutionalisation of complaining leads directly to its deterioration. Before dealing with this point, then, it is useful to reflect on the workings of the culture of complaint in British higher education.

It is important to note that the culture of complaint on campuses did not emerge as a response to quality-related issues that were intrinsic to the university. The advocacy of a complaining culture had its origins in developments that were external to higher education. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Government launched a variety of consumer-oriented charters - The Citizen's Charter, The Patient's Charter, The Parent's Charter - and promoted complaining as a vehicle for encouraging the efficient delivery of services in the public sector. A statement approved by a Conservative Cabinet seminar in February 1993, to the effect that "complaints are jewels to be cherished", resonated with the thinking of all the main parliamentary parties.

The complaining consumer emerged as the righteous hero who would put right the many defects of the public sector. Even organisations that were opposed to the Conservative Government - trade unions, the National Union of Students - reinvented themselves as champions of the cause of the consumer. When the NUS launched its NUS Student Charter in December 1992, it was widely praised by the education establishment for its realism. Lorna Fitzsimons, the president of the NUS at the time, was widely commended for her statement "students as consumers have a right to quality education, equivalence and choice". In the early 1990s, it was recognised that the NUS faced a crisis of identity. The retreat of the Left and the decline of student activism deprived it of a clear identity. In line with the prevailing mood of the times, it reinvented itself as a consumerist lobby group and played a significant role in the cultural transformation of the meaning of a university student to that of a customer.

Since the 1990s, the association of higher education with the act of consumption has acquired the character of an official doctrine. In recent years, how students feel about their university has been turned into an instrument for auditing the quality of institutions of higher education. During the past four years, the transformation of student sentiment into an indicator of quality has been achieved through the National Student Survey (NSS). This annual exercise, which purports to measure student satisfaction, is explicitly used to hold universities accountable for the "experience" they provide to their students. But whatever one thinks of the formalisation of the culture of complaint in universities, it is important to note that its main driver is the imperative of auditing and bureaucratisation rather than a genuine aspiration for quality education.

The cumulative outcome of the affirmation of students' complaints is to render the process banal. There is little doubt that encouraging students to think of themselves as customers has fostered a mood in which education is regarded as a commodity that must represent value for money. Although this sensibility is rarely expressed explicitly, it influences the way universities manage their affairs and provides an idiom through which students sometimes express their grievances.

The constant affirmation of the culture of complaint inevitably influences some students to believe that because they paid for their education, they are entitled to demand satisfaction and a decent degree. That is why the vast majority of complaints are about the marks gained on essays, exams and the classification of degrees. One of the most striking manifestations of this trend is the growing tendency by students to question the marks they receive on their assessment. In some cases, students go through the motion of challenging their marks, only half believing that anything will come out of their complaint. However, since complaining is a one-way bet, there is little to be lost from having a go.

Supporters of the culture of complaint argue that its institutionalisation provides valuable information that can help universities improve the quality of the services they provide. One example that is used to show the usefulness of the NSS is its highlighting of student concern about the quality of feedback that they receive. This survey shows that students rate lowly the quality of feedback that they receive from their tutors. In response to this perceived deficit, many universities have sought to review their method of feedback and assessment.

However, complaints about feedback rarely express disappointment about the absence of a genuine dialogue and exchange with a tutor. In one social science department criticised for the quality of feedback, two thirds of the essays submitted were never picked up by their authors, who preferred to go online to learn their grades. As a result, they never had a chance to read the comments that their marker wrote on their essays.

One lecturer at a London university was taken aback when she was told by her students that they were not interested in holding a seminar discussion to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their essays. She was even more disturbed when a couple of months later she was accused of not providing good feedback by one of her students. Complaints about feedback are frequently a roundabout way of expressing disappointment about a mark that a student received for an assignment or exam. "We were not told what to expect or what we should be doing" is a common theme raised in such complaints.

There are, of course, many disturbing developments in higher education that students have every right to protest about. Universities face strong pressures to increase the number of bums on seats. Academic staff are forced to devote considerable energy and time to pointless bureaucratic exercises. Many departments charged with bringing in money end up reducing the resources they devote to teaching, research and the pursuit of scholarship. Officials who regard universities as an instrument of social engineering have forced many institutions to embark on the road of chaotic expansion. The cumulative outcome of these developments has encouraged some institutions to equate quality with quantity, which no doubt has led to the diminishing of the standard of higher education. In some institutions, students feel aggrieved by the mind-numbing experience of spoon-feeding lectures built around PowerPoint, formulaic seminars and the lack of intellectual stimulation. The discontent expressed recently by students at the University of Bristol about a planned reduction in teaching hours, large seminar groups and the proposal that essays should be marked by undergraduates is a rare but legitimate response that should be supported by academics.

However, the real issue at Bristol and other universities is not that customers' rights have been violated, but that the quality of education has been compromised in the way that institutions have responded to the demands that confront them. Perversely, one of the pressures compounding this problem is the institutionalisation of complaining and the use of student satisfaction as an instrument for auditing universities. University managers have become very anxious about avoiding student complaint and litigation. Many of the routine practices of higher education - teaching, assessment, examining - are increasingly influenced by their impact on student satisfaction. However, the current fixation of university managers with customer satisfaction has the regrettable downside of distracting from their intellectual mission.

Since nothing pleases students as much as high marks and a good degree, many universities have felt compelled to bend over backwards to keep their customers happy. In the name of student satisfaction, departments that seek to maintain standards often face pressure to adopt a more "progressive" style of grading. The new modes of assessment that have been introduced have worked to facilitate grade inflation.

The current celebration of student satisfaction has fostered a climate in which institutions are obsessed with avoiding complaints and fear that disputes with fee-paying customers could lead to litigation. The culture of complaint has produced a form of "defensive education" that is devoted to minimising sources of disputes that have the potential to lead to complaint and litigation. Defensive education encourages a climate in which educators are discouraged from exercising their professional judgment when offering feedback or responding to disputed marks. Courses, especially ones that do not rate highly in student surveys, are modified and made customer friendly. Academics have become more defensive and circumspect about expressing their views with clarity. They write formulaic letters of reference and refrain from stating opinions that could provoke complaints from their customers. One of the most obvious strategies for avoiding complaints is to flatter students. Feedback is often used as a vehicle for validating the efforts of a student instead of pointing out weaknesses in presentation and argument.

Defensive education also dissuades academics from dealing effectively with cheating. In some universities, academics have been discouraged from charging students with plagiarism because of concerns that the institution may be sued. Dealing with complaints about plagiarism sometimes serves as a disincentive to pursue the dispute. The OIA's Behrens turns this problem upside down when he speculates that the rise in complaints was partly an outcome of a "moral panic" over plagiarism by universities that led to "overzealous sanctions". Anyone even vaguely familiar with academic life would be astonished to discover that campuses were overwhelmed by a moral panic fuelled by overzealous inquisitors. On the contrary, there is one powerful reason why acts of plagiarism are dealt with leniently or overlooked - the fear of student complaint. If there is a moral panic, its focus is the slothful academics who refuse to respond to the authentic grievances of their hard-working and fee-paying customers.

The promotion of a culture of complaint has no redeeming qualities. The internalisation of this culture by universities has created an environment where managing the expectations of students takes priority over intellectually challenging them. All too often students are flattered just for being students and not infrequently academics are forced to avoid acting in accordance with their judgment in order to avoid complaint. None of this is the fault of students, who have been socialised into perceiving themselves as consumers of education.

In the end, the culture of complaint undermines the unique potential for academic collaboration and dialogue and heightens the sense of conflict of interest. It is a bad, very bad idea.

UNJUSTIFIED STUDENT COMPLAINTS: CASES FROM THE OIA FILES

Fair penalty for bad behaviour

S was a first-year student who became friends with another student, R, on commencing his course and accompanied his friend in a series of violent incidents at the university, which included the sexual harassment of female students.

Both students were taken through the university disciplinary procedure and admitted the incidents, although S blamed R for initiating the behaviour. Both students were expelled. S appealed to the university and said that as he was only an accomplice he should have received a lesser punishment than R.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator ruled the complaint not justified: the penalty was within the discretionary range available to the university and the decision to expel was reasonable in all the circumstances.

Dissatisfaction is no proof of bias

S was registered on a four-year degree from 2002 to 2006. He received a lower-second degree in 2006. He appealed against the classification on the basis that he was not satisfied that the university had taken his third-year mitigating circumstances fully into account and that the arrangements for vivas, in borderline classification cases, had been affected by the industrial action of lecturers in May 2006.

During the course of correspondence, the university offered to take the matter back for a full consideration of all of the mitigating circumstances. The university organised a new board of examiners, with the addition of two fresh external examiners. The board examined the evidence along with comprehensive statistical evidence showing how S's results compared with the rest of the cohort. The board confirmed the decision that S had achieved a lower-second classification of degree.

The OIA ruled the complaint not justified: the question as to which degree classification a student's academic profile warrants is a question of academic judgment, which is beyond the remit of the OIA. Dissatisfaction with a degree result does not amount to proof of bias. The mitigating circumstances were classified as minor. The OIA did not consider that decision to be unreasonable.

Supervision provided was comparable

S was an MBA student who was withdrawn after two unsuccessful attempts at her dissertation. She appealed against the deregistration decision on the ground that she had received inadequate supervision. The appeal was dismissed by both appeal panels convened under stage one and two of the university's appeals procedures. Both panels found that there was no evidence to support the contention that the supervision S had received was inadequate. On the contrary, the panels found that the documentation provided by the department demonstrated that S had received supervision in accordance with the programme guidelines.

S complained to the OIA that the university's finding - that she had received appropriate supervision - was unreasonable and that there were procedural defects in the hearing of her appeal.

The OIA ruled the complaint not justified: the OIA found that the supervision S received was comparable to other students resubmitting their dissertation at the same time. The supervision record kept by the supervisor also showed that she had received supervision in excess of the guideline amount set out in the programme handbook.

If the supervision was adequate or not was a matter for the university to judge.

Progression criteria were always clear

S wanted to enrol on a part-time masters course. He had no recent academic qualifications and was advised that he could enrol on a graduate diploma with the possibility of a transfer to the masters award if he achieved very good marks in his first two modules. S did not achieve these marks and so his various requests to progress to the masters award were turned down. When S completed the diploma he complained to the university that it had misrepresented it to him and that he had no better level of qualifications than when he started. S also complained that the university had not treated him with respect.

The OIA ruled the complaint not justified: the university had been clear and courteous to S throughout the communications about the criteria for obtaining progression to the masters and the appeals process.

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