Students Complaints Against Universities Rise By 20%

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More students are lodging complaints about their university
More students are lodging complaints about their university

Student complaints against universities rose by a fifth last year, and are expected to accelerate after tuition fees triple to up to £9,000, according to a watchdog.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) said it received 1,605 complaints about institutions in England and Wales in 2011, a 20% increase on the previous year.

It added that there had been a 200% increase in complaints submitted since the system was formally set up in 2005.

OIA chief executive Rob Behrens suggested that the dramatic rises are down to the adjudicator becoming more well-known, and students seeing themselves more as consumers demanding value for money.

With the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year, the trend is expected to continue, with the OIA predicting it will receive more than 2,300 complaints this year.

Behrens said a 20% increase was not out of line with predictions for last year.

In total, the 1,605 complaints received represented only 0.07% of students, he said.

"It is still very small, with large potential to grow," Behrens said.

"The scheme has become better known each year. The debate about the fees and the White Paper has taken place in the last year and has heightened students' awareness of their rights as consumers."

That makes people more disposed to make complaints, Behrens suggested.

He added that the OIA was involved in two High Court appeals in the last year, which drew attention to its role.

Behrens also said that the number of students who have complaints could be as much as seven times higher as the number dealt with by the OIA.

This is because the OIA only deals with complaints brought to them by students after they have been through their university's complaints system.

The OIA's annual report reveals that the most complaints received by the adjudicator were about business and administrative studies courses, while the fewest were about computer science.

The grievances cover everything from issues over a student's academic status to discrimination, disciplinary matters and misconduct matters such as plagiarism.

The number of complaints relating to academic misconduct, including plagiarism, has doubled since 2008, the report says, although the numbers remain small.

It suggests that with essays readily available to buy online, this rise is not surprising.

It adds that universities need to do more to set out what is expected of students in avoiding plagiarism, at the beginning of courses.

Of the complaints dealt with last year, 16% were found to be either fully or partly justified, the report shows.

Professor Eric Thomas, president of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said the increase shows students are becoming increasingly aware of the OIA's role, and notes there has been a drop in the number of complaints fully or partly upheld.

"One complaint is of course one too many, but the increase in fees is leading undoubtedly to students demanding more and more from their universities," he said.

"Institutions are responding clearly to this and student satisfaction rates remain very high across the sector overall. This is down to the hard work and dedication of university staff. There is no room for complacency as students' expectations will continue to rise.

"Universities are now publishing more and more information about what students can expect from their time at university. Universities are striving to make this information as clear and as accessible as possible, particularly in relation to academic misconduct and plagiarism and what is expected of students."

Pete Mercer, vice-president of the National Union of Students (NUS) said: "For the good of all students those who deliberately cheat should of course be punished but more must be done to stamp out confusion around academic standards.

"For new students, particularly those coming from abroad, what constitutes plagiarism can vary and proper training and picking up minor infractions early on can help students to know exactly what is expected of them."

Alex Bols, the new executive director of the 1994 Group, which represents a group of leading, research intensive universities, will today give a speech calling for the higher education sector to set out its own vision for the future, saying it should aspire to the "very highest levels of achievement."

Bols says: "We want to see UK universities home to excellent teaching and learning. This of course means ensuring that academic staff deliver for students in the ways they have a right to expect, but it also means expecting the very best of students themselves.

"Students should be prepared for a rigorous academic challenge which pushes them to reach well beyond their comfort zone."

He also warns of the risks of lowering the entry requirements needed for leading universities.

"Of course we work hard to support people with talent and potential to reach the standards required to gain a place at the best university that matches their needs, but lowering the academic bar to entry does them, and indeed institutions, a disservice and we must guard against this."