David Willetts has welcomed new figures that suggest there was a sharp increase in student complaints in 2012-13, following the introduction of his “student-centred” higher education reforms.
According to data compiled by the BBC using Freedom of Information laws, more than 20,000 students lodged complaints with their universities last year, 10 per cent more than in 2010-11.
The universities minister said this increase was a sign that students were demanding more from their universities under the new £9,000 tuition-fee regime.
“If there are more complaints because students are more aware of what they should expect of funding and are more demanding, then I think that’s a good thing,” Mr Willetts told the BBC.
“When there’s a fee of £9,000, the university is obliged to show what they’re doing and provide a decent service.”
The complaints data relate to 120 universities, out of the 142 that were approached.
The data also reveal that universities are upholding more student complaints than before and paying out more in compensation, totalling more than £2 million since 2010.
The University and College Union said the figures showed that “students have been encouraged to think of themselves as consumers in the era of £9,000-a-year fees”.
It pointed out that student satisfaction remains high, with the National Student Survey for 2013 finding that 85 per cent of students were satisfied with their course overall and 86 per cent were satisfied with the teaching on their course.
However, Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said universities must not be complacent, arguing that they “need to clarify exactly what students can expect from a course and what is expected of them”.
“Universities should focus on the learning experience they provide, including support for hard-pressed staff, rather than flashy buildings and expensive marketing,” Ms Hunt added.
Richard Lloyd, executive director of the consumer rights organisation Which?, said: “Students have the right to expect a high quality experience for their investment…Universities must comply with consumer protection legislation so students don’t face unfair changes to their course.”
Earlier this year, Times Higher Education reported on the rise of student complaints regarding assessment since the introduction of £9,000-a-year fees.
In April, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator established deadlines for dealing with student complaints.
Student concerns should be dealt with directly within a fortnight, the OIA said, and if unresolved by the end of 14 days, a “formal stage” should follow, lasting no longer than a month.
Students who are unhappy with the outcome of their complaint should be given a final response within 21 days.