Quality will not improve if complaints reform puts lecturers on the defensive, writes Frank Furedi
Students arriving on campuses this autumn will have found they have larger classes, less contact time with teachers and poor library and research resources, insufficient to maintain high standards.
What they will also have, however, is more opportunity to complain about it all. Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone has told vice-chancellors that they must get their act together and "reform" their complaints and grievances procedures.
Her sentiments are echoed by the National Union of Students, which has announced that it will campaign for "accountability, promotion of a mass consumer culture and an audit of complaints and appeals". It has threatened to "name and shame" universities.
It is only a matter of time before the arrival of league tables ranking universities on the quality of their grievance procedures.
The importance that the higher education bureaucracy attaches to promoting a complaints culture in universities in part reflects a weakening of trust in relations between teachers and students.
Lady Blackstone's warning to vice-chancellors is linked to the view that students and their parents have to be treated as "critical consumers", who would not accept the quality of university teaching on trust.
Her solution is to build trust in formal procedures rather than in the student-teacher relationship. The effect is likely to compromise that relationship further. It will force teachers to be accountable to managerial controls as recommended by Dearing. Teachers who work with an eye on complaints procedures will also help universities to avoid litigation.
The promotion of the culture presents the latest step in the transformation of the student-teacher relationship into a transaction between a deliverer of service and a customer.
There is little doubt this development is going to have a major impact on relations of trust between students and teachers.
The culture of complaining is likely to establish a climate where students will learn to trust, not their teachers, but systems of complaint. Trusting auditors and bureaucrats, figures external to the learning process, makes sense once learning comes to be regarded as a transaction.
In turn, teachers scrutinised by this system of control will be oriented towards meeting the expectations of their customers, rather than trying to shift or challenge those expectations.
"Critical consumers" can regard university education as a service they pay for. This is a significant shift from the idea that students join a university to participate, collaborate and experiment in a relatively open-ended engagement. But even if teaching can become commodified, university learning, the gaining of knowledge, cannot be reduced to the act of a purchase. Whereas delivery of teaching implies a transaction where one side is active and the other is passive, gaining knowledge involves mutual responsibility.
According to Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool, one of the main effects of institutionalising complaints will be to encourage students to take less responsibility for their role in learning.
Students are likely to look for external causes to make sense of their problems and will increasingly regard poor marks as the fault of their teachers or of the university. For their part teachers will have little incentive to take responsibility for the intellectual development of their students. Their prime responsibility will be to abstract systems of control rather than to the people they face in the classroom.
Teachers are likely to become even more wary about how they conduct themselves. Instead of experimenting, they will need to be more circumspect. The wrong word or utterance, open to misinterpretation, can be a first step to activating a complaints procedure. A reading list will no longer serve as a guide to a course, but will also constitute paper evidence that can be used to justify a complaint, should a tutor be foolish enough to divert from it.
Instead of freely engaging in teaching, lecturers will gradually come to resemble teachers working to the strict guidelines of a national curriculum.
Once trust is focused on a procedure rather then embedded in a relationship, teachers will have to work to a routine rather than take account of the individual circumstances of students. Every good university teacher knows that pressure is called for in some circumstances but not others.
Some students thrive on being stretched to their limits while others need more careful handling and support. The ability to adopt a differentiated approach to students attached to the same group is likely to appear discriminatory or unfair, once formal grievance procedures are enacted.
Professor Smithers believes that teachers will soon have to record any advice they offer and even get students to initial it in order to cover their backs. Defensive teaching has no pedagogical merit.
Good teachers provoke a multitude of responses. Every inspiring teacher polarises opinion and generates strong positive, and sometimes negative, reactions. Today, such an approach represents an invitation to complain.
The most immediate impact of institutionalising complaining is on examinations and assessment. Examinations, certainly in the humanities and social sciences, involve the exercise of subjective opinion. Marking is not a precise science and, even in today's bureaucratic climate, expectations vary from teacher to teacher.
Examination and essay marks are difficult to sustain in a court of law. With the transformation of trust relations into a transaction, students are likely to regard the opinions of their tutors as open to contest. ;University authorities recognise that assessment could be a complaints minefield. Their response is to demand that methods of assessment should be made more explicit, and there is considerable pressure to make this process more "objective".
One likely outcome will be to go down the United States road of relying on objective forms of assessment such as multiple-choice tests and reducing the number of essays demanded of students. How long before British academics become involved in protracted negotiations with students unhappy with their essay mark?
Paradoxically, the new systems introduced to put abstract ideals of accountability into practice are likely to have the opposite effect. There is little doubt that the promotion of complaining will force teachers to become more accountable to the quality assurance process. But, instead of improving quality, this will divert teachers from acting in what they genuinely perceive to be their students' best interests. It will make them focus more on what students expect rather than what is required to develop them intellectually.
The two are seldom the same. Unfortunately, teachers are less likely to opt for an open-ended intellectual engagement that is a crucial component of good academic teaching. And what about the students? They will learn to complain and play the system. As far as rewards are concerned this represents a far more clever strategy than placing trust in their teachers.
Frank Furedi is a reader in sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The views expressed above are his own and should not be attributed to any of the institutions with which he is affiliated.