A greater number of students are challenging marks awarded to them by academics since the introduction of £9,000 fees, often using legal representation or demanding cash compensation, a conference has heard.
Academic assessment was now a “danger area” given the rising number of appeals submitted by students in the new era of higher fees, said Robin Dutton, director of quality systems at University College Birmingham, one of several delegates at a Westminster Higher Education Forum who suggested that the student complaints landscape had changed significantly during the past year.
Mr Dutton said more students were complaining about assessment issues at his institution, and anecdotal evidence suggested the same thing was happening at other institutions.
Some students who now appealed wanted financial recompense over allegations, he said.
More students were also threatening to publicise their grievances, often making “libellous statements” about individual staff members, so confidentiality clauses had now been built into complaint procedures to “keep it inside the university”, Mr Dutton added.
Ross Renton, dean of students at the University of Hertfordshire, also told the conference, held in London on 16 January, that more students were seeking third-party help early in the complaints process, often from a friend or family member with a legal background.
These interventions tended to make complaints “more complex”, with the consequence that “students do not get the best deal out of it”, Mr Renton observed.
Students were also turning to the Quality Assurance Agency’s complaints process more often with their grievances, and legal actions were becoming more common, said Karen Stephenson, a partner in the education team at Weightmans, a firm of solicitors.
Ms Stephenson, who worked at London South Bank University for 15 years as course director and university secretary, said academic appeals had been used as a pretext for not paying tuition fees.
“We are seeing a rise in students who are being chased for [outstanding] fees, who raise a complaint to help settle the fees situation,” Ms Stephenson said.
Complaints about library opening hours, alleged favouritism by lecturers, “inappropriate behaviour” and “incorrect marks” were just some of the reasons she had encountered for students not paying their fees, she said.
“It never ceases to amaze me how innovative students are,” said Ms Stephenson, who said it was usually those “in the last-chance saloon” academically who complained.
The increasingly litigious nature of student complaints reflected the move towards a “transactional relationship” between students and their universities, which academics should acknowledge, she added.
Ad hoc extensions to essay deadlines were unwise and could prove “costly” as universities were open to challenge from other students, Ms Stephenson said.
“Academics are no longer able to have informal conversations [with students] in corridors [about work] – you need to schedule meetings and make file notes,” she said.
“I don’t like that as an individual, but I like to see that happening [with clients] as a lawyer,” she added.