Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Customer is Always Right

My Student Power post on Monday gives me a bit of theme for today – the student as consumer. There have been a couple of straws in the wind about changing habits and expectations. And my expectation is that universities will have to adapt.

Firstly, the Office for Fair Trading (OFT), with its recent report into Universities Terms and Conditions. This looks at how some universities use academic sanctions (ie non-progression between years; or withholding exam results) as part of their strategy to deal with debt owed by students for non-academic matters (eg halls fees; library fines). Another day I will post on the report itself, and implications for ‘the student contract’. What is interesting for me, on this occasion, is the focus on student as consumer, and the clarity with which consumer protection legislation applies.

The report identified the following legislation as relevant:

• the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 ('UTCCRs')
• the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 ('UCTA')
• the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 ('CPRs').

That’ll be some new acronyms for university administrators to get their heads around. And consumer protection legislation is a long way from academic matters not being justiciable in the courts.

The OFT also commented:
Generally undergraduate students can be considered vulnerable and in a relatively weak position compared to the university. Some are likely to have limited experience of contracts, and contractual obligations are unlikely to be at the forefront of their minds at a time when they are seeking to enrol at university.
Universities often fall back on the line that students are adults and must be responsible for their own decisions: a lot of practice in relation to exam irregularities, for instance, rests on this assumption. The need to take into account the imbalance of power between the university and the student is clear.

The second straw in the wind is the consultation by the Office for the Independent Adjudicator into Higher Education (OIA) about a new framework for managing student complaints and appeals.

This is a really good document, the work of some great collaboration between sector bodies and students. And the draft guidance is clear that in managing student complaints and appeals universities need to raise their game to meet more challenging timescales, to resolve complaints sooner, and to treat students more fairly. It reads much more like a consumer complaints regulation than any previous framework.

How will universities react to this? Seriously, I’m sure: I haven’t yet come across a university which doesn’t take student complaints this way. But might we see, in a few years, student complaints teams being called student care or (eek!) customer care? That is what it is, after all.

Just straws in the wind, but there’s a definite breeze picking up. See Registrarism’s blog post today about the changing role of the NUS too. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that The Student is the Customer Now, and we’d all better get our Corporate Smiles going. Manifestly in the classroom the student isn’t a customer but is a learner. And so it should be. But universities need to get more used to the notion that robustness in working with students needs to be tempered by considerations of power.

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