University complaints by students top 20,000

More than 20,000 students complained to their universities last year, a Freedom of Information request by the BBC has shown.

Responses from 120 universities across the UK revealed that total academic appeals and complaints were 10% higher in 2012-13 than in 2010-11.

Universities Minister David Willetts welcomed the finding.

He said it showed that students were demanding more for the £9,000-per-year fee.

The BBC sent Freedom of Information requests to 142 universities across the UK, asking how many complaints and appeals they had received since 2010. A total of 120 responded. The results showed universities were upholding more student complaints than ever before.

The amount paid out in compensation had also risen. The total paid since 2010 was more than £2m.

Mr Willetts said it appeared that since tuition fees rose to £9,000, students were more likely to hold their universities to account when things went wrong.

“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,” said Mr Willetts.

“When there’s a fee of £9,000, the university is obliged to show what they’re doing and provide a decent service.”

The logical end result of this trend is the growth of litigation against universities. I’ve been curious as to the potential growth of this since Tom Martin’s lawsuit against the LSE a couple of years ago. The case was thrown out because the argument was absurd (and Martin was an idiot) but self-evidently nonsense cases are surely the thin end of the wedge, heralding the future arrival of lawsuits with potentially far greater traction and all manner of problems likely to ensue from them.

If you combine a risk averse culture with the threat of litigation then how will practice be proactively changed? For instance if there’s a perceived risk of students legally contesting degree classifications in the case of results on the boundary, perhaps citing loss of earning as Martin did for dropping out of his masters degree, then how hard is it to imagine an uncodified institutional drift towards always marking upwards in such cases? After all a student suing their university must surely reflect an egregious ‘student experience’.

Coming back to this a few hours later, I feel the need to add that I don’t think it’s intrinsically a negative thing for students to make complaints. I can think of quite a few issues where more willingness to complain is a very good thing. I’m just worried about the general trend at an institutional level.

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