Listen to the whistling in the dark

September 25, 1998

John Randall is spot on in saying that "the best way forward is for institutions to get complaints-handling right first time", as is Dennis Farrington when he suggests the archaic visitor system is "totally at odds with modern ways of doing business" (Letters, THES, September 18) but both fail to hit the real target.

Put simply, those responsible for the handling of internal and external student complaints are getting it right neither first time nor second time. A survey by the National Postgraduate Committee published this month reveals that a third of institutions do not even possess an internal complaints procedure. Most do not bear scrutiny nor satisfy even the most basic recommendations of Dearing.

In too many cases, institutions are acting irresponsibly in not having easily invoked or widely publicised complaints procedures. Students are thus left whistling in the dark. If forced to fester in a climate of apathy and denial, complaints from students, especially fee-paying ones, can only increase. Students are not demanding more; institutions are promising more and delivering less. That is the problem.

The Quality Assurance Agency says it puts complaints at "the top of the agenda" (THES, August 21) while cowering cowardly in the corner like a watchdog without bark or bite. It sadly has neither the power nor the political imperative to be driving its own agenda. Instead the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, under the misguided guise of "institutional autonomy", has given institutions carte blanche to do as they please. Such a laissez-faire attitude means that first-class students are treated like second-class citizens. For example, students, unlike staff, do not even have a code of practice for whistleblowers. Their degrees of freedom are thus unjustly restricted. And the deliberately hazy distinction between "appeals" and "complaints" has serious repercussions, particularly for postgraduates.

Lodging a complaint is analogous to jumping off a cliff. As such, any additional safety net, be it the QAA or an ombudsman, must be welcomed. Prevention is surely better than cure? But reactionary institutions have not been quick to respond to changing times. Clinging desperately to a medieval system of complaint such as the visitor is symptomatic of their myopia. It belongs in the Dark Ages; rather apt considering students are kept in the dark and must wait ages. No wonder institutions are painfully slow to embrace a transparent complaints culture.

Don Staniford Project officer National Postgraduate Committee

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