Complain, please

July 16, 1999

Students are ready to 'name and shame' universities that ignore their grouses, writes Andrew Pakes

From next October vice-chancellors had better watch out because students in every university in the country will be urged to start making formal complaints if they are unhappy with the quality of teaching, coursework or whatever else they receive in return for their Pounds 1,000 tuition fee.

Complaining in this organised way is the best way of exposing the shambolic state of complaints procedures across higher education. That is the reasoning behind the National Union of Students' complaints campaign to be launched at its convention at Nottingham Trent University.

The first step is to get students who are unhappy with the service they receive for their tuition fees to complain. Student unions will then audit the procedures at each college by tracking the progress of those complaints. The information they collect will be used to "name and shame" institutions. We expect many systems to collapse under the strain.

Like most "old" universities, Reading has an independent

external "visitor" who deals with complaints. Much better than a telephone helpline or a refund-with-receipt guarantee, you may think, but if you really want to complain at Reading your only external redress is through HRH Elizabeth II. Yes, Reading's visitor is the Queen and if you do have a complaint, it will end up at the Privy Council.

Reading is no exception. The great and the good of British public life form the backbone of the old universities' complaints process. The visitor system has all the illusion of independence but none of the substance.

If you were studying just up the road from Reading at Oxford Brookes University and you could not get your complaint dealt with internally, you could go through the courts and seek judicial review. New universities have an entirely different complaints process, which is better, as long as you can get legal aid. Again, depending on where you study, some legal aid boards will fund education cases and some will not.

At least these places have complaints procedures. But if you study at Birkbeck, Cambridge or Oxford universities then there is no official procedure. Amazing isn't it? Millions of pounds of tuition fees and public funds spent every year and no accountability.

In its report on the future of higher education, the Dearing committee said that by mid-1999 all universities should have complaints procedures that reflect natural justice. It is a true indictment of the quality of customer care that only 59 per cent of student union officers believe their institutions' procedures come close to this bottom line.

Dearing realised that if Pounds 1,000 in tuition fees was to pass hands, then students deserved value for money. No matter which university students attend they have to pay Pounds 1,000, yet if students have a complaint, it is pot luck whether they will get a fair hearing. The only real independent options students have if they want to complain is to write to me, the BBC's Watchdog or Talk Radio's Scam Busters. What we need is a higher education ombudsperson to bring us into line with every other part of the public sector.

Realistically, I know that students next year will not get the chance to complain to an ombudsperson but I still want them to complain. Now we are approaching the second year of tuition fees, universities and colleges should have begun to institute a service culture. Paying customers have the right to complain and that their complaint will be acted on.

The average customer with a complaint will tell nine other people. When we find the worst complaints systems in the country, we will tell more than just nine people, we will tell all 900 of our affiliated institutions and the press. Next year, students will speak out. Will your university listen? Andrew Pakes is president of the National Union of Students.

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