Common sense on complaints

February 12, 1999

The THES has blown out of the water claims by the university sector that it can handle student complaints ("From mark to blemish",Whistleblowers, THES, February 5). Sadly, Sunderland could have been any other university.

Sunderland's mistake was to go for a Charter Mark that was clearly beyond it. The fact that since 1996 only two universities have been awarded Charter Marks for their complaints procedures should not surprise anyone. More alarming is the revelation that the Charter Mark award is not worth the paper it is written on.

This begs uncomfortable questions of the Cabinet Office that awards Charter Marks. The National Postgraduate Committee, for one, will be asking them. This month the National Union of Students unveiled its Good Practice guides for complaints and appeals and later in the year the Quality Assurance Agency will be issuing its own code of practice for complaints. Universities, so well versed in bad practice, would do well to lift their heads out of the sand in time to read them.

NPC and NUS research has provided damning evidence that, left to their own devices, universities are simply not capable of adhering to the Dearing principles of natural justice, transparency, independence and reconciliation. In fact, the QAA said recently that 80 per cent of the complaints it receives are complaints about complaints procedures.

Students are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal and condemnation. The fact that more and more are doing so speaks volumes for the inadequacy of current avenues of complaint. So long as universities cling to a culture of compliance rather than one of complaint, the crisis can only be compounded. As Nolan says, universities must not only make good decisions in complaints but also must be seen to do so. Good practice makes common sense. Unfortunately, bad practice is all too often the norm and common sense is not a currency universities are used to dealing in.

If universities do not address the problem, they will be broke as well as broken in terms of their complaints procedures. For students are increasingly making universities pay for bad practice ("Dubai teacher pursues compensation for 'wasted' PhD effort", THES, February 5).

The Aston case signals a shift in power away from universities and towards students. The Sunderland case starkly proves that a Charter Mark is only a worthless piece of white paper and certainly no defence for students who have the law on their side.

Don Staniford Project Officer, National Postgraduate Committee

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