If there's no cause for complaint, students should be held to account

Universities ought to protect their lecturers by taking action against those who make unfounded allegations against them, argues Ian Greener

May 14, 2009

Colleagues from across the sector tell me that the number of student complaints is on the rise. Either universities are getting things wrong more often, or students are complaining for other reasons.

Over the 12 years that I've taught in higher education, universities have generally got their acts together, with processes and procedures improving considerably. It therefore seems unlikely that we are making more mistakes. This suggests that the number of student complaints is rising even as universities are getting better at running courses, and that there has been a rise in the number of unjustified student complaints.

At its worst, the new culture of complaint is encouraging students to make unjustified allegations against staff in an attempt to get degree classifications raised or fails turned into passes. Some students now accuse academics and administrators of the most terrible things with no sense of responsibility or accountability.

Let me be clear - students absolutely have the right to appeal where they believe that they have reasonable grounds. However, when they make serious allegations about staff, and where these allegations are found to be entirely without substance, universities have to step in and act to protect their staff.

I have no right to slander or libel a student, and would expect to be held to account were I to do so. Equally, if a student libels a member of staff in a complaint or appeal or (as is increasingly common) via Facebook or other social-networking websites, then he or she should expect there to be consequences. Universities aspire to be bastions of the free and vigorous exchange of views, but with the right of freedom of expression comes responsibility. The liberal philosopher John Rawls wrote that freedom of speech was trumped by the duty of its responsible use - our right to say what we want does not give us the right to libel others.

When students complain without justification, it leads to an erosion of good faith in their relationships with staff. Administrators and academics alike have become more wary of interacting with students outside classrooms and formal tutorial settings, aware that they are potentially opening space for complaints about their conduct. As an undergraduate, I was invited to my lecturers' homes for meals and drinks, but I couldn't imagine doing this now with my students. Equally, communications with and about students - especially via email - have become more formal because university employees must always have one eye on what the messages might look like were that student to complain or appeal and those messages become the subject of a Freedom of Information Act request. Not surprisingly, students find staff more wary and stand-offish. This is a shame for all concerned.

Why are complaints more common now? One possibility is that once students (or, more accurately, their parents) were asked to pay fees, they began to think of themselves less as students and more as customers. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, in the face of increasing student complaints, has acknowledged the rise in "consumerist thinking".

Moreover, as many employers make job offers based on the achievement of a particular degree classification, students have understandably become more contractual in their approach to learning. Students can have a great deal at stake in graduating with the class of degree that they believe appropriate (usually at least a 2:1); if they fall short, they may come to believe that lodging an appeal gives them a second chance. Aware that complaints about academic judgment are unlikely to succeed, some students resort to making unpleasant and potentially career-ending allegations against staff without any evidence, and without any sense of responsibility or accountability for false allegations.

Where students make groundless allegations against university staff, our institutions should protect us by considering whether student codes of conduct have been broken in complaints or appeals. If they have, serious consideration should be given to the issue of whether those students have committed disciplinary offences, and whether appropriate action should be taken.

Until the UK's universities are prepared to stand up for staff who have faced unfounded allegations, and to hold students to account where necessary, we will run the risk of allowing a situation in which a small minority of students have everything to gain by making malicious allegations against staff, and nothing to lose.

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