Complaint culture grows on campus

August 19, 2005

Universities have been swamped by more than 20,000 complaints and exam appeals in the past three years as students assert their consumer rights in increasing numbers, figures released to The Times Higher reveal.

Hundreds of complaints were made about erroneous exam papers, inadequate facilities and cancelled classes. More unusual grievances include a formal complaint about a "dog in a classroom", concerns about an in-crease in the price of a cappuccino at a cafe, and accusations that an allegedly drunken drama tutor awarded higher marks to performances that included "sexual content".

Government officials and student leaders welcomed the findings as a sign that tuition fee-paying students were standing up for their rights.

But lecturers' union Natfhe warned that an unwelcome "commodification" of higher education was leading to a complaints culture that was diverting time and resources away from teaching and research while putting intolerable pressure on lecturers faced with often spurious allegations.

"Students are no longer students - they are customers," said Andy Pike, national official in the universities department at Natfhe.

Data provided by 104 institutions under the Freedom of Information Act show that students made 6,796 formal complaints and appeals in 2003. In 2004, the figure rocketed to 8,682.

At the end of July this year, 4,658 complaints had been logged for the 2005 academic year, but the figure is expected to rise over the summer.

Of the 20,136 complaints and appeals, at least 6,442 (32 per cent) were upheld, although some institutions failed to provide data on the conclusions of complaints. The proportion upheld increased from 30.4 per cent in 2002-03 to 35.3 per cent in 2004-05.

A total of more than £300,000 was paid out in refunds and compensation.

The University of the West of England was among those with the highest number of complaints, reporting a total of 399 in 2004 and 477 so far in 2005.

The university said the figures included large numbers of very minor issues, and represented a low proportion of its total student body of ,000.

A UWE spokesman said that the university had actively encouraged a complaints culture. "It is the world we are entering."

Oxford University has seen a steady increase in the number of complaints and appeals - largely made up of exam appeals.

It received 126 complaints in 2003, rising to 131 in 2004 and to 145 so far in 2005.

In 2003, of the 13 allegations that exam papers had been "set incorrectly", 11 were upheld. In one case, the university upheld a complaint that exam questions had been "disclosed inadvertently" to candidates before the exam.

Oxford said that its student union had publicised students' rights, and the figures included minor results of queries not recorded at other institutions.

Kat Fletcher, the president of the National Union of Students, said: "With a funding system that increasingly views a degree as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that students are starting to view themselves as consumers."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "It is right that students have high expectations of the institution that they attend."

A spokesperson for Universities UK said that institutions "have established procedures for dealing with student complaints and make these procedures known to all students".

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