More than half of universities do not meet principles of "natural justice" when dealing with student complaints, student leaders believe, writes Phil Baty.
Launching the findings of a national survey of student complaint procedures this week, the National Union of Students has warned that institutions are ill-prepared for a forthcoming explosion in complaints.
The NUS found that 59 per cent of local student union branches believed that their institutions' systems for dealing with student complaints did not reflect the principles of natural justice recommended in Lord Dearing's inquiry into higher education.
Almost a quarter of student unions said that they believed their institutions had an unhealthy vested interest in the outcome of complaints proceedings, and 65 per cent believed that procedures did not include enough of an external element.
NUS vice-president (education) Jim Gardner said that universities were improving procedures. Only 6.5 per cent of student unions said their institutions had no formal procedures in place.
However, where systems were in place, many were inadequate, he said. Half of student unions said that complaints were rising, but said their institutions were already unable to cope.
The survey found that students were reluctant to complain for fear of reprisals.
But the NUS warned that tuition fees, an increasing awareness of student rights, and the rise of "more vociferous" mature students would see complaints rise even further.
The NUS this week launched a guide to good practice. It warns that procedures must be clearly publicised and always referred to senior decision-makers.
Twenty-six per cent of institutions did not keep a central complaints record, the NUS said.