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What Are Students Complaining About?

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 20 May 2010 | comments*Discuss
What Are Students Complaining About?

Recent years have seen a significant rise in student complaints but is it an indication of falling standards or rising expectations?

Increased Pressure, Increased Complaint?

The pressure on students is growing. At one time a student’s passage through academia was eased by grant supplements, government-funded tuition and an assurance that your final degree would be a one-way ticket into a promising career.

Now, having to fork out for living costs and expensive tuition fees, most students are plunged into considerable debt and then upon graduation, bleak recession-hit job prospects dampen any hopes of relieving the debt any time soon.

Seeking Value for Money

With such investment risk it is not surprising that students are seen to be becoming more insistent on receiving value for money from their degree course. The complaint rise is seen as indicative of this attitude and also, in a wider sense, a general cultural shift that is seeing universities evolve into more consumer-led institutions.

As they pay the most for their university education, it is perhaps no wonder that overseas students are the most likely to complain, being responsible for 25 per cent of complaints in a recent survey, while only accounting for 10 per cent of the student body. Postgraduate students complain more than undergraduates because by opting to pursue their studies to a higher level, they are investing more of their time and resources, and so are expected to be more demanding of their course.

Which Courses Prompt the Most Complaints?

Whether a course is more career-focused is also seen to have a motivating effect on student ire, with those undertaking business and administrative-based courses most likely to complain, followed by law and medicine. The fact that law and medicine-related students must fulfil fitness-to-practice requirements in order to follow vocational careers presents an extra impetus to ensure nothing stands in the way of their qualification.

What are they Complaining About?

Whatever the student type or their course, each shares a desire to achieve a high grade of academic degree, and so complaints about academic status are understandably by far the most common gripes.

For instance, one student insisted they would have got a higher grade if their lecturers hadn’t gone on strike over pay – a complaint that was later rejected. Complaints were upheld, however, from several students from the same course who said the poor standard of teaching had had a detrimental effect on their degree.

The second most common complaints concern ‘service issues’, namely contractual obligations that the university fails to honour. One student complained that their exam finals revision was disrupted by renovations to their halls of residence. Plagiarism is the third main topic of contention with many students complaining they were not given enough opportunity to rebuff allegations of cheating.

The voice of complaint is also seen to be louder because students are now more aware of the complaints procedure due to the increased exposure of the OIA (Office of the Independent Adjudicator), which operates an independent student complaints scheme.

Reflective of a Decline in Teaching Standards?

Students may be becoming more demanding and ‘consumerist’ but could the rise in complaints also reflect a decline in teaching standards?

To help answer this the actual number of complaints should be put into context. In 2008, out of 1.9 million students in England and Wales, only 900 complaints were received. What’s more although the number of complaints may have risen significantly, there’s actually been a decline in complaints upheld, suggesting that although more students are complaining there is no more justification for complaint than before.

Nevertheless, the small number of complaints upheld may also be a sign that they are not satisfactorily dealt with in the first place. Recent years have also seen strong criticism of the complaints and appeals procedures of universities in England and Wales. When NUS conducted a survey amongst the student population that tackled the subject, only 14% said they thought their university dealt with complaints fairly. They took issue with the fact that it is usually university staff that look at complaints and they may naturally side with the institution. The excessive length of time it took to deal with complaints was also a major concern.

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