Failure not an option

October 4, 2002

Complaint procedures give dissatisfied students a powerful arsenal with which they can exact revenge, argues David Warner

Almost all higher education institutions will now have procedures to deal with student appeals against academic decisions and complaints of various types. They may differ, but all will have at the final stage some form of external arbiter - a visitor, independent arbitration or both. The exhaustive and proper use of these procedures should be sufficient to come to a final decision, especially if both parties agree in advance to be bound by that decision. Unfortunately, in practice, this is not necessarily the case.

By slightly changing the grounds of the issues and/or by omitting to recount in full the procedures and investigations that have already been enacted, the persistent student will find a ready new audience for a complaint in at least one (and probably all) of the following camps:

* Politicians, including MEPs and local councillors and, in Scotland and Wales, members of the National Assembly

* Central government, officials as well as ministers, including the Treasury and the Privy Council. Each can be given a slightly different spin on the issue

* The quangos, including higher education funding councils, the Quality Assurance Agency and the National Audit Office, which will all probably respond with alacrity for fear of being accused of "sweeping an issue under the carpet"

* The "independents", such as the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards

* The media

* The legal system, in the UK and in Europe.

At the very best, investigations by most of the above will take an inordinately long time to deal with. Each new body that enters the fray will demand an urgent response to the "scandal" that "it has just discovered". Everyone seems to be working in a climate of fear and has to protect his or her back. The result is that scarce resources are wasted and diverted from the key tasks of teaching, research and helping to regenerate the economy. At worst, staff and fellow students may suffer severe stress and even physical illness.

This is a disgrace and, to make matters worse, there is little or nothing a higher education institution can do about it. In the outside world, I might, as a last resort, choose to protect myself by going to court. In the case of obsessive students, this is not desirable because:

* It is expensive and a further waste of public money

* Higher education institutions generally care for their students and do not wish to pursue them legally

* Such action would only provide a further public platform for the student

* Invariably, students are "men of straw" and any success against them is financially worthless.

Even the extent of the problem is unknown. Higher education institutions are, understandably, reluctant to add more public fuel to the fire and thereby incite others to get onto the juggernaut. The only thing that is certain is that the problem will grow and grow and the waste of precious resources increase proportionately.

What is needed is a Universities UK investigation into the situation, with appropriate recommendations. These might include guidelines for politicians, restrictions on quango responsibilities and actions, and perhaps even legal changes. Above all, however, the culture of attacking higher education institutions at every opportunity must change.

Students can and will fail courses and be graded lower than their personal self-assessment. This does not indicate that there is something rotten at the heart of higher education - the explanation is invariably much simpler.

David Warner is principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education. He is co-editor of the second edition of Higher Education Law , published by Jordans, and has recently finished editing the volume Managing Crisis .

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