Information overload may give students even more cause for complaint

Proposals for universities to provide much more detailed information about course content, academic staff and student views could lead to a massive surge in complaints that will put pressure on the sector's oversight bodies, it has been suggested.

July 7, 2011

The government's higher education White Paper puts forward a series of recommendations for information that ministers want universities to provide to students on top of the Key Information Sets that are already set for launch next year.

They include an "expectation" that institutions publish the results of internal evaluation surveys for courses; a call for data on the qualifications held by successful applicants to be revealed; and suggestions that prospective students should also be informed of likely class sizes and given details about the expertise of teaching staff.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said the release of much more information would provide more "pegs" to hang grievances on, but could also make disputes more legalistic.

He added that the suggestion that student charters could be made mandatory was an interesting development because there were questions over the point at which they become in effect legal contracts.

Overall, he said there were likely to be pressures on bodies such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which the White Paper says should consult universities on how disputes could be resolved more quickly.

"The more that's out there, the more there are pegs to hang grievances on, and the more detail there is to be hacked over in a dispute means the more complicated and time-consuming it is to handle the process," Mr Palfreyman said.

However, he said that the move to look at the use of campus ombudsmen and other forms of early mediation in disputes might provide a "counterpoint" to the pressures.

Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator, acknowledged the need for the OIA to ensure that it was fully resourced to tackle the inevitable increase in student complaints.

In the coming months, the OIA is expected to launch a consultation on changing its method of funding so that an element of the fee universities are charged is related to the volume of complaints the body has to handle.

"We have done everything we can to control our costs, to engage in reforms that don't necessarily have financial implications (and) to limit our recruitment, but at the end of the day, when complaints are rising by so much, and when they are going to continue to rise, that has financial implications," he said.

He added that he was pleased that the government had listened to the arguments that the sector had put forward on the complaints process, particularly in keeping the OIA independent.

Mr Behrens also welcomed the overall framework of regulation involving the interaction between the OIA, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office for Fair Access and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

However, Mr Palfreyman said the White Paper proved that the government had actually found it difficult not to introduce further red tape into the higher education sector.

"On the one hand it purports to be (about) deregulation and liberalisation, but the problem is that once you have a great chunk of people whose livelihood is being regulated, it is difficult to get rid of. It is like having a nasty virus you can't shake," he said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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