I could start with the usual clichés about increases in student fees and value for money and the like, couldn’t I? Well, if we’re honest that’s the main concern of students and parents, all who want to make sure that if the government wants to saddle us with debt for the next 20-odd years, at least we have good reason for it.

I mean, the idea that we actually get what we pay for might actually be important to us. So imagine my surprise at two things this week, then, when the latest figures on student complaints to universities were released the other week…

  • Student complaints are on the increase again and now stands at ‘more than 20,000’, according to the BBC.
  • Why the media seem to make this out to be some sort of shocking statistic.

I’ll explain the latter point later, but for now we can focus on the big figure – 20,000 complaints. The BBC sent out Freedom of Information requests to 142 institutions in the UK on the subject – they got back 120 responses. Perhaps those who replied are trying the whole ‘we’re open and honest’ game and everyone else is just highly embarassed or something… Maybe that’s a tad cynical but you get the idea.

If we’re slightly generous and say it’s 20,000 complaints exactly, that makes 166 per university who responded. Consider that there are 2.5 million students in the UK at the moment, we can come to the conclusion that our complaint rate is 0.8% nationally. Interestingly, the overall national satisfaction rate is at about 85%, with 8% reportedly ‘unsatisfied’, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – it does make you wonder what it would be like if every unsatisfied student in the UK decided to complain… My guess would be around 200,000 complaints, or 10 times the current level.

A large proportion of complaints were to appeal against grades – a sadly all-too-common reality for many students, many of whom think the assignment marking was not done fairly or with enough care. Another large percentage came from students complaining about course content and face-to-face support being lacking. Painfully I can relate to this – I long haven’t been happy about spending my first two university years studying the same modules as those on completely different courses, merely because that’s easier for the faculty.

It does make for some miserable reading, doesn’t it? We’re now at a record high for complaints, right when the government wants to make sure their education policy fits with people. After it was discovered that the system for repayments was so inefficient that it was going to be more expensive for our economy , student must be expecting something rather special… Turns out we’re not even close to getting to the standard expected.

Consider this: I am under the ‘old’ system, of £3,300 a year in fees. I get 8 hours a week in contact time and decent support services. For the newer people? £9,000 a year, an average of 13 hours a week, and limited support, thanks to over-stretched staff. The deal they get is hardly any better… Universities can claim that they’re stretched financially, but I fear that that won’t wash much with people with prestige projects taking priority and inflation-busting pay rises given to those Vice-Chancellors. The system is built on profit to the degree  that  some universities forget their real purpose.

This is why this news doesn’t serve as much of a surprise to me. If you want to be simple about this, students are quite rightly demanding more and the universities out there aren’t living up to that. I’m sure that there are a band of militant anti-student people out there who think they should get what they’re given but I would like to point out very few have ever paid for their education – especially not £9,000 a year in fees, taken out a £3,500 loan and still likely dipped into savings at the same tim. Did I mention that was ‘per year’ too? I think it’s more a case of ‘getting what we pay for.’

Universities need to get with the needs of students more. If you you’ve got surpluses, use them to help actually support students. That might make them a little happier – just a thought.

The worst offender for complaints was Anglia Ruskin University, who managed to pull in 992 complaints over a year. For a student population of 31,500, this works out at just over 3%, or nearly four times the national average. A spokesman for the university was quoted as saying that the figure was expected for a university of their size… Well, clearly not if you’re so high above the national average!

The BBC reported that the amount of compensation given out had increased also – the bill since 2010 now stands at £2m. Obviously I can’t imagine universities being too keen to dip into the coffers, but clearly the only way in some cases appears to be to refund parts of their fee.

So what’s been the reaction from the government, who’s incredible idea this regime was? Well, the universities minister David Willetts said that he welcomed the findings and said it was proof students were demanding more for their money. Well, it would be surprising if they asked for less – of course students will ask for more!

What astounds me more is that many cases have to be taken to independent arbitration because they are not dealt with in a satisfactory manner internally. The BBC spoke to adjudicator Rob Behrens, who dealt with cases of unsatisfied students – he reported a steady year-on-year increase in the number of cases he had to deal with – recently topping 2,000 a year. Frightening. So not only are students not happy, but universities don’t seem to deal with it properly.

Quite rightly, the NUS has said that students are being lied to about the education. Many are getting a raw deal for the money they pay, that is clear. I couldn’t agree more – the latest results show a clear lack of respect from universities in terms of what they give students.

If you have an issue then do raise a grievance – one day universities might wake up.

The only worrying question is… Where does this stop?




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I'm an active energetic person. I enjoy long-distance running and have taken part in many organised events including the 2016 Prague Marathon. I'm a keen skier and love open-water swimming, when the weather is right!