Complaints cost hard cash

July 12, 1996

Students pay towards their higher education and want value for money. THES reporters look at the university appeals system and what happens when degree courses are not all they were advertised to be. A rising tide of student complaints is costing universities hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Yet nearly half of institutions have no formal student complaints procedure, a national study has found.

The number of complaints from students about anything ranging from academic standards to accommodation has grown by about 300 per cent over the past three years for many universities.

All but one of 25 surveyed in the study commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council said complaints were on the increase. Dealing with them can cost an institution up to Pounds 50,000 a year.

A report on the findings is now in the hands of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, which has set up a working party to consider the future of the university appeals system.

The working party, chaired by Clive Booth, vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, will be looking at the issues in the light of recommendations from Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life.

The Nolan committee's second report called for new and independent channels of complaint to be set up for university and college staff and students. It suggested the ancient system of having a "Visitor" to whom complaints can be made was "not by any means perfect".

Visitors are meant to be the guardians of an institution's internal laws. But the process of getting a complaint considered by them can be long and complex, and most new universities do not have a Visitor anyway. A few newer universities have Visitors, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury for Kent, others have the Privy Council, and the Lord Chancellor's office can also handle cases.

The HEQC report, written by Dennis Farrington, deputy secretary and clerk to the court at Stirling University, observes that some institutions without a visitor have appointed an independent person to adjudicate on complaints which cannot be resolved internally.

Nevertheless, Dr Farrington's survey found that 44 per cent of universities had no formal student complaints procedure, and 68 per cent made no regular report on complaints to a main body of the institution.

The appearance of student charters and a consumer culture in higher education together with rapid growth in student numbers at a time of financial constraints were among several key factors blamed for the rise in complaints.

Academic matters and quality were the biggest source of complaints, with accommodation, services and the conduct of other individuals, also mentioned by institutions. Estimates of the cost of handling complaints ranged from a few thousand pounds up to Pounds 50,000 a year, reflecting the amount of senior management time they use up.

The report comments: "At times of reducing resources some of the figures are alarming and the picture darkens when one considers that at some of the institutions recording the highest spending the number of complaints to external agencies is also high and increasing."

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