Students are complaining.  What else do you expect when you build a system based on expectation?

So, students are pissed off.  Understandable really, seeing as they are coughing up nine grand a year to be taught by academics whose ‘education is about broadening the mind’ mentality, like their teaching buildings, can ill afford to remain stuck in the 70s.  £400,000 was paid out in compensation to some 200 students last year by English and Welsh universities, according to a recent report by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA).

‘Go to university and realise your dreams’. 

‘A future full of riches awaits.

So screams the increasingly desperate sector and its political masters (they didn’t pay nine grand but let’s gloss over that) so keen are they to steer the yoof of today away from the good old dole office (fighting in some far flung war ain’t for us all).  Selling a product is based upon expectation of how its purchase can change your life.  Students expect now.  Rightfully and understandably  so.

I graduated in 2003 from Manchester University (not the poly, darling – I transferred from one, believing all the league table and job prospects adverts) with a linguistics degree and a heightened sense of self-importance and value, instilled by the system.  After rejecting a return to Sainsbury’s (too good for that – I got a degree) and only applying for jobs paying 20k plus (shit, that’s the average graduate salary, right?), I found myself signing on whilst pursing an 18 month long dream to write an ultimately unrealised film script.  Talent would have helped.  Or nepotism (you learn that word in time).  Cue getting a job in a call centre.  Hellish.  Soul sucking.

The last vestiges of my self-importance were slowly knocked out of me in the following 8 years in university admissions.  With hindsight, if I saw the adverts for a glorious future riding on the outcome of my degree, and a potentially hefty (more than my 20k one) bill down the line, I’d pipe up too if the building work annoyed me or I felt the teaching was sub-standard.

Noticeably, students taking courses leading to a qualification or professional recognition lodged the most complaints.  Signing up for a Business, Administrative, Medicine or Law degree brings an expectation of a particular career, more so than the humanities.  You can see why those students clocked up around a third of cases handled by the OIA, whose workload remained similar to the last two years; university complaints having risen sharply with the 2012 tuition fee hike.

As we’re talking history; the 2012 tuition fee increase brought record complaints to the OIA, fuelled, arguably, by a governmental drive to encourage students to act like customers, a word now entrenched, often begrudgingly, in the collective vocabulary of university staff.  Anglia Ruskin University reportedly received 992 appeals or complaints in the 2012 to 2013 year; doubt that’s in the prospectus.  Such grievances do not necessarily end up on the doorstep of the OIA though, with students directed to follow potentially lengthy and not uniform, internal complaints processes first.  Turns out universities have ombudsmen now.

But just how did the once reverential students get so bloody demanding?  Well, they swallowed the government line about being customers which enabled the government to turn Higher Education into a market whilst conveniently and obviously coincidentally reducing public subsidy.  Students’ expectations and perceptions of Higher Education were examined in a 2013 report.  The sector is still grappling with their consumerist approach, desire for value for money (it is kind of taxpayers though isn’t it?), continued need for face to face teaching and careers advice.

The pressures of this expectation are felt by university staff who enjoy the pleasure of reviewing student’s claims or establishing procedures, if they follow OIA recommendations.  61% of complaints related to unsuccessful marks appeals, progression between years and final decisions on degree classification or postgraduate qualification, highlighting the perceived importance of the fruits of one’s labour.  Around a quarter of the OIA’s 2040 cases were found at least partially in favour of the student.  Complaints are ruled unjustified if there has been, for example, a clear breach by the student of regulations or processes or a student has not met clear timescales set by the provider.

Matching students’ expectations with reality (‘no, full time History study does not mean 37 hours a week in a stuffy lecture room’ I want to scream down the phone) remains a challenge. Turns out students are not that au fait with what their degree has in store for them, which has contributed to 1 in 3 being dissatisfied with their subject choice.  The OIA, finding 15% of complaints to be service related, recommended the award of financial compensation to a student aggrieved by their study options in year 2 and 3 of a new course.

“Universities are responding to this and are also improving the amount of information to students about courses to ensure that their experience matches their expectations”.

-Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, on students’ approach.

Universities are upping their Key Information Sets data (which show graduate employment course data and teaching hours) and open day endeavour (virtual ones now too – my mind’s blown) as they strive for the kind of transparency that can inform consumer decision making, whilst simultaneously satisfying the potential political desire for market segmentation.  Which? called for universities to set complaints standards and offer course related contracts.  Subsequently, the Competition and Markets Authority published advice to universities about their obligations to ensure fair Ts & Cs, accessible, clear and fair complaints processes and clear pre-enrolment information.  That was a thrilling training session!

All of which, if followed, sounds great.  Yet, the messages students are receiving remain mixed.  Love bombing them with unconditional offers and all sorts of goodies in the context of a burgeoning and divisive buyer / seller dynamic can only fan the flames of expectation, whilst possibly blurring their selective judgment.  Expectation can and should be met with quality staff, teaching facilities and a thriving union.  The least universities must provide is the kind of experience that enables a willing student to profit as much as possible from these formative years.  Although, before a complaints culture dawns, students are best reading the (currently invisible) small print when they sign up; ‘this degree does not guarantee a job’.

I doubt a degree costing more than 9 grand a year would either…

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