Tackle student gripes 'head on', study urges

September 13, 2002

Universities across the developed world need to respond to student complaints, an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study suggests.

The study, part of the OECD's programme on institutional management in higher education, tackles the increasingly "consumerist" approach among students and examines universities' responses.

It says that increased expectations are not directly related to the shift towards greater financial contributions by students to their higher education. Even where state grants to universities are rising, so are student expectations.

Australian student numbers have risen by 43 per cent between 1990 and 2000, and Richard James, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, argues that greater efforts are needed to manage expectations during the early "formative" period of enrolment.

"This is the time during which much of the lasting nature of the student-university transaction will be established, and universities need to work extremely hard to influence expectations and capture student engagement."

Dennis Farrington, secretary-general of the partly Albanophone SEE University in Tetovo, Macedonia, suggests a multi-layered approach to keeping disputes between universities and students out of the courts, including transparent mechanisms in universities as an essential part of quality control and non-judicial bodies outside universities, such as an ombudsman.

The ombudsman experience in different countries has highlighted problems with lack of well-defined processes for handling student complaints, poor record keeping and a lack of professionalism in managing the rights of students. In Denmark, some 50 complaints out of a total 3,500-4,000 each year are from university students.

Bruce Barbour, New South Wales's ombudsman, finalised 45 complaints about universities in 2000-01, almost all from academics. "Complaints are usually an expression of dissatisfaction with the organisation or its staff. How do you reduce this dissatisfaction? A proper process for handling complaints is a good place to start," he says.

An encouraging number of Australian universities have established ombudsman offices. "The most effective way to deal with student grievances is not to run away from them but to tackle them head on," he writes.

The legal liability of Australian universities is clear, according to Anthony Moore, associate professor of law at Flinders University, but "there has hardly been a flood of cases where educational institutions have been sued".

In the Czech Republic, student satisfaction has been measured in a survey by the Centre for Higher Education Studies, which found a relatively high level of approval of faculty conditions, quality of teaching and experience of lecturers. Areas where dissatisfaction outweighed satisfaction included information technology (more than 55 per cent felt it was under- utilised) and a majority view (57.3 per cent) that quantity of knowledge took precedence over quality.

Student leaders involved in the project emphasise that students do not want to be viewed simply as customers and clients.

Michael Conlon, director of research for the Canadian Federation of Students, says students are struggling to maintain the publicly funded universities' goal of universality in the face of an encroaching view of education as a largely individual - and individualistic - enterprise.

The study will be presented at the programme's conference in Paris next week.

Responding to Student Expectations , OECD Publications Service, 2 Rue André-Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France.

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