Leader - Local pathways through disputed territory

When it comes to resolving student grievances in the high fees era, it is best if universities can nip them in the bud

June 13, 2013

“Complaints/we’ve had a few/but then again…” (sorry, Mr Sinatra).

If ever there was an inclination among universities to downplay student complaints, such apathy will have been demolished by the coalition’s funding reforms. Minds have been focused by the turbulence in student demand - note the shock waves generated by last year’s recruitment patterns, or local indicators such as the University of Salford’s decision to close underperforming courses “to secure the future of the university”.

This is what the government wanted - market forces shaping the sector - and it has led to a growing focus on reputation (and not just in terms of research).

The most formal expression of student discontent is the complaint that goes through a university’s internal processes and on to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. When tuition fees were raised it was widely predicted that the number of grievances would go through the roof as the new “consumers” flexed their muscles. In this week’s cover story, we reflect on data from the OIA showing a 25 per cent rise in complaints in 2012.

Rob Behrens, the OIA’s chief executive, attributes this unequivocally to a change in culture: students, he says, are now “more aware of what they are entitled to”.

An independent national ombudsman has many merits, but it’s far better if the vast majority of complaints never get that far

If raising a concern internally then escalating it to the OIA is the official route available to the unsatisfied student, the internet has long provided a Wild West alternative. First there were blogs and forums on which individuals could vent their spleens; now social media are allowing the world to say whatever it likes about whatever it likes.

For universities competing for students, this matters a great deal: according to one US study, of 21,000 high school students polled, 53 per cent used social networks to find out about the universities to which they were applying.

While social media are fundamentally changing the flow of information, we report this week on concerns among lecturers in the UK about the arrival of a less novel phenomenon: a copy of the US-based Rate My Professors website.

While concern about quick, dirty and personalised feedback is understandable (particularly its potential impact on individuals), universities are unlikely to get too distracted. What matters most, not least to their reputations, is that they continue to listen, learn and try new things - as at the University of Huddersfield, for example, which has introduced student conciliators in every school and credits them with significantly cutting the number of formal complaints against the institution.

Such efforts are crucial as the OIA strives to reduce the time universities take to resolve grievances and to handle complaints more quickly itself when they are escalated. The ombudsman is also changing its subscription model to provide universities with a financial incentive to resolve more complaints internally, and is naming institutions involved in cases with sector-wide ramifications, good and bad.

This mixture of carrot and stick seems right, as does the focus on quick, local resolution. An independent national ombudsman has many merits, but it’s far better if the vast majority of complaints never get that far - that universities do it their way.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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