Students, get it off your chest

Suggestion boxes could be used to encourage overseas learners to complain. John Gill reports

February 5, 2009

Universities should take tips on customer service from the retail industry and install Ikea-style suggestion boxes to encourage more students to complain.

The suggestion was made by a marketing lecturer at Northumbria University, who said more had to be done to overcome cultural barriers and encourage foreign students to air their grievances.

David Hart, who interviewed 150 East Asian students to find out how they complain, said universities must be open to criticism if they want to maintain the lucrative flow of students from overseas.

His study, carried out as part of his PhD, found that students from China and other East Asian countries are shedding their inhibitions about complaining.

Dr Hart argues that this development is down to the large sums of money they pay to study in the UK, the fact they are shelling out more than their British peers, and the risks they take travelling thousands of miles to attend universities here.

However, they are more likely to complain in writing to avoid face-to-face confrontations, and still harbour fears that doing so could result in their tutors marking them down.

A frequent source of complaints by students from East Asia was contact hours, he said.

They are often used to 30 hours of supervised study a week in their own countries, far more than they usually get here, despite the high fees they pay, Dr Hart said.

The study also analysed how they prefer to make their complaints known.

It concluded that students from China were most comfortable putting their criticisms in writing.

"In China in particular, lecturers have such high status that approaching them and being critical is very much a no-no," Dr Hart said.

"One option to get around this might be an anonymous suggestion box, although clearly how appropriate that is depends on the nature of the problem.

"But there's a need for greater clarity, so perhaps we could learn from the world of retail."

With the UK higher education sector increasingly reliant on fee income from overseas students, Dr Hart said universities should take his findings seriously.

"There are approximately 70,000 East Asian students in the UK, and we are increasingly in competition with other English-speaking countries to keep hold of them.

"There's a need to understand how they react to bad experiences," he said.

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