Lecture's off? I want my bus fare refunded

August 19, 2005

Phil Baty and Tom Wainwright report on a boom in undergraduate complaints

Have you heard about the student who was awarded £200 by Aston University after getting stuck in a lift and missing a lecture?

Or the student at Plymouth University who was refunded £62.50 in course fees because of dissatisfaction "with the timing and quality of feedback" for an assessment?

Then there's the student whose bus fare was refunded after a lecture was cancelled without notice.

This is the brave new world of student consumer rights.

The cases are revealed for the first time after an investigation under the Freedom of Information Act by The Times Higher .

Experts believe that these cases, and the thousands more recorded by institutions, signal a fundamental shift in the nature of higher education.

"We stand at an interesting moment in the history of higher education," said Dame Ruth Deech, the first independent adjudicator for student complaints.

Rising complaints

Students have brought at least 5,9 cases under formal complaints procedures over the past three years, the survey has revealed.

The complaints ranged from poor-quality accommodation to incompetent lecturers and obsolete facilities. The number of complaints shot up from 1,840 in 2002-03 to 2,799 in 2003-04. There were 1,288 recorded complaints for 2004-05 at the time of the survey.

Students also lodged 14,209 official appeals against exam marks over the three-year period. Allegations ranged from badly written or erroneous examination papers to claims that poor results were the consequence of mitigating circumstances. The number of appeals rose from 4,956 in 2002-03 to 5,883 in 2003-04. The figure of 3,370 for 2004-05 so far is expected to increase steadily after the publication of the summer examination results.

Dame Ruth said that the upward trend was explained in part by rising student numbers. In addition, she added, the increasingly crowded graduate jobs market meant that there was greater pressure on students to succeed.

Consumer culture

Dame Ruth said that the effort to attract more students from working-class backgrounds, while an entirely legitimate goal, contributed to the rise in the number of complaints. Non-traditional and overseas students were more likely to encounter problems with support and language and to experience culture clashes.

The introduction of tuition fees is a crucial factor. "The more people feel they're paying, the more they feel they are entitled to examine what they're getting for their money," Dame Ruth said.

"When fees go up to £3,000 (next year), I think there will be another increase. Once parents become conscious of paying a lot, they'll be much more insistent on getting what they pay for," she said.

The end of "free" education had changed the student culture, she said.

"Regrettably, students see themselves as consumers rather than participants in a process. Higher education is not a consumer product, but a participatory product," she said.

Jan Harris, deputy head of the education student issues group at law firm Eversheds, said the number of complaints she handled for university clients had increased by about 50 per cent over the past four years.

She said she had witnessed a dramatic rise in the influence of parents since the introduction of fees.

"Parents are having to stump up more than they were, and there is a whole ethos of parents getting more involved," she added. "At least a third of complaints I deal with, I would say, have some form of direct or indirect parental involvement," she said.

Valid grounds for gripes

The investigation found that many students have reason to be unhappy with what they receive in exchange for their fees. But complaints have major implications for universities' resources and for the workload and working environment of staff.

In 2002-03, 37 per cent of complaints were upheld. In 2003-04, 43 per cent were upheld. Over the three years, universities found that 2,169 complaints (36 per cent) had substance.

Including appeals, about a third are upheld year on year.

Matt Waddup, assistant general secretary for the Association of University Teachers, said that students were bound to encounter genuine problems as a result of poor levels of funding and a plethora of red tape.

"Our members report that with ever more external regulation and assessment of their research and teaching, as well as increasing demands on administrative staff, they have less and less time to spend with students," he said.

"Student-to-staff ratios are now higher in universities than in schools, and this will inevitably have an impact. As most students would agree, university staff continue to do an amazing job in increasingly difficult circumstances."

The survey highlighted many complaints about poor facilities and resources.

At Edge Hill College, Merseyside, for example, 44 students complained last year that one lecturing venue was "not appropriate as a lecture hall for 60 third-year students (poor acoustics, no note-taking facilities)". Elsewhere, students complained about staff shortages, timetable clashes and poor feedback.Vexatious trend Andy Pike, a national official at lecturers' union Natfhe, said the fact that two thirds of the complaints were not upheld suggests an alarming trend towards vexatious complaints.

"Relations break down between students and their lecturers through no fault of the lecturer," he said.

He raised concerns about universities' willingness to adopt the service industry mantra that the customer is always right.

"Once a complaint is made, a bureaucracy moves in quickly and students always get the benefit of the doubt. Lecturers are left facing tremendous pressure and wasting a lot of time that could be better spent on teaching and research," he said.

Complaints are also beginning to hit universities' bottom lines. Institutions reported that £326,423 was paid out in compensation or in course and hall fee refunds - although most complaints are resolved without payments.

De Montfort University has paid out £8,766 over the past three years, the London School of Economics £10,000, Plymouth University £13,000 and Bristol University £,000.

But Surrey University paid out the most, almost £68,000 - a sum it said "comprised an award to a PhD student and payments made to other students (including fees refunds) across the period".

Graham McAnuff this year won a landmark £9,000 in compensation from Oxford Brookes University, alongside about a dozen colleagues, after his career was delayed by the university's repeated failure to gain professional accreditation for an osteopathy course.

He said universities would have to face up to an increase in the number of compensation claims unless they got their act together.

"Perhaps it was because we were mature students, and we'd given up jobs and careers to take the course, that we were not prepared to go away," he said. "We simply demanded value for money. We expected better from one of the best new universities in the country and had a right to expect better.

"I believe our victory - after a three-year fight - will act as a further catalyst for a change of culture."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

Research by Darius Nikbin

ACTIONS AND REACTIONS

A group of ten theatre studies students at De Montfort University claimed that a tutor swore at a student, "had taken alcohol during an assessment" and generally gave higher marks "to performances with sexual content".

  • The university found no evidence that "body-based performances" were given higher marks. The tutor "admitted swearing but had apologised" and admitted that he had taken "a small amount" of alcohol that was "provided as part of the performance".

A parent of a student at De Montfort alleged that she had been unfairly dismissed from her course.

  • The complaint could not be dealt with because the "student specifically requested DMU not to discuss her personal details with parents".

A disabled student at Aston University complained about "deficiencies in the level and nature of support for her additional needs".

  • The university paid out £2,400. It received eight similar complaints and reviewed its policies.

A postgraduate student at Queen's University, Belfast, said "that examiners had speculated inappropriately about the state of his mind".

  • Complaint upheld.

At Queen Mary, University of London, a student complained about "the quality of teaching" on a unit.

  • The complaint led to the discovery of several unhappy students. "The lecturer on the course was changed, remedial teaching was provided and those students who wished to transfer to another course were allowed to do so."

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