Move to curb student rights

July 13, 2007

Universities draft legal document to protect against complaints by their students, reports Melanie Newman

A legal contract that would restrict students' rights to seek compensation over inadequate teaching has been prepared by senior university administrators, The Times Higher has learnt.

The contract, drafted by commercial lawyers for the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA), would limit students' rights to take legal action if a course changed or closed, or if promises made in prospectuses were not delivered.

The contract, written by Pinsent Masons, would also protect universities from any liability for disruption caused by lecturers' industrial action. The National Union of Students has attacked it as one-sided.

The initiative runs contrary to a new Government drive to put student rights at the heart of its new agenda, reflecting mounting tensions about the rise of a "consumer culture" among fee-paying students.

The remit of the House of Lords minister for the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, Lord Triesman, includes specific responsibility for "students as customers".

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell told The Times Higher that "in the era of [tuition] fees, institutions have got to be responsive to people who are paying for their own higher education" and must "personalise services" to meet individual students' needs.

He said: "Anyone who works in public services - and technically universities aren't part of the public sector, but they do provide a public service - has to recognise that we're all paid to deliver a service to individuals."

Mr Rammell said that the Government had not yet reached a decision about lifting the current £3,000 cap on tuition fees and will give the system three years to bed in before making a decision in its fees review in 2009.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The shift towards a market in higher education is inevitably bringing about a consumer culture. The biggest losers so far have been students and staff. But vice-chancellors must also be prepared to reap what they sow. If students are unhappy with the service provided they are much more likely to seek redress.

"UCU members rightly worry that top-up fees will create a generation of customers rather than learners. They know that an industry approach to higher education has the potential for terrible consequences for the sector," Ms Hunt said.

The National Union of Students welcomed the Government's new focus on their needs and rights. However, Wes Streeting, NUS vice-president for education, said that describing students as customers was not an accurate reflection of their relationships with universities and lecturers.

"It's unfortunate that the notion of 'students as customers' has been adopted so widely that it is now featuring in ministerial portfolios. Education is not a commodity but an act of partnership," he said.

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