Simon Renton UCU on Complaints and Student Expectations

sit-in17:40 Tuesday 3rd June 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[C]HRIS MANN: Figures obtained by the BBC show that complaints and appeals made against universities in the UK have risen by 10% since 2012, when some starting charging fees of up to £9,000 a year of course. More than 20,000 complaints were made last year alone. Simon Renton is Vice-President of the University and College Union, the UCU. They represent the thousands of university staff across the UK, and he joined me earlier.
SIMON RENTON: They’re disappointing, but I don’t think, no, they’re not surprising. I’m sorry to say that they pretty much fall in line with what we had expected.
CHRIS MANN: And why is that?

SIMON RENTON: Well, because these figures were generated in the first year in which fees, undergraduate fees, were tripled to £9,000. This is also the year in which universities had the least money to support each student. Either before and subsequently they’ve had more money than they had in that year, because central government teaching grants had been withdrawn, but the fee income had not made up even a significant part of that shortfall. So universities were very under-resourced, particularly under-resourced in that year. And at the same time the customer, if you like, expectation of students, and to some extent of their parents, had been increased by the way that central government had presented their pseudo-market if you like.
CHRIS MANN: There’s some concern about how these figures have been put together. One of our local universities is Anglia Ruskin of course, who’ve come out almost worst in this of everybody. But they’re pleading the fact that only 9 of the so-called 992 appeals and comp-laints were actually complaints. This, as they say, they’ve been verified of audit by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which is effectively the external court of appeal for students. Do you agree with that?
SIMON RENTON: I wouldn’t like to intervene in terms of expressing a view in that individual case. But I would say a few things about the difference in pattern between institutions. And I think there are three factors there. One is the extent to which the expectations of students actually co-incide with the reality that they find. That’s one factor. The other is the way that data is collected. Some institutions make it easier to complain, or to appeal, than others. And they must generate, must generate, more complaints. Another of course is that different universities have a different student intake, a different student profile. So that those at universities who customarily recruit the least proportion of students who require a great deal of support will often be those who have the most resources to support those students who need it. Those who have the highest proportion of students who need a great deal of support often have the smallest facility for dealing with them. And that I think skews those figures.
CHRIS MANN: You’re making some pretty serious charges at the UCU. You say it’s become a market, and universities are now spending on marketing and buildings instead of teaching and research. Could you substantiate that please?
SIMON RENTON: Well certainly I think most university campuses that you look around now, you will find shiny new buildings everywhere you look. Certainly the proportion of turnover which goes into marketing is very very much higher than it was. Of course the whole nature of competition, which central government has encouraged, must almost by definition drive marketing. We’ve not reached the appalling situation that some North American US colleges have reached, where marketing actually costs the university more than teaching and research. But it’s something that I definitely think is worth watching. The big thing of course is that student expectations do not always co-incide with the expectations of their teachers. So of the serious complaints, which I think we should actually deal with seriously, that is to do with students either genuinely being misled, or feeling that the expectations .. they may get less, they may be told what’s what less often than they’re expecting. In some cases they may be expecting continuation of school, where their teachers will simply tell them what is the case, and they’re expected just to remember that. In fact of course the whole change from school to universities, they’re much more likely to be sent off either alone or in small groups to go to the library and discover things for themselves, and learn how to learn.
CHRIS MANN: Simon Renton, the Vice-President of the University and College Union, the UCU, on those new figures showing that there are more complaints this year than last, up by 10%, by students against universities. About 20,000.


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