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Points of view

Rant & Rave’s Nick Boxall-Hunt looks at how universities must engage more with students to stop the growing number of complaints

Fresher’s week is now a distant memory; students are fully settled into university life, confident in what they like, and don’t like, about their new surroundings. And it seems that they are not afraid to show it as new research from the BBC has revealed that complaints amongst students are on the rise with more than 20,000 students complaining to their universities last year. In line with the national rise in the number of complaints being made, this highly vocal demographic is starting to make a noise about the level of service they are getting, or more importantly what they are expecting to receive.

Rob Behrens, independent adjudicator for Higher Education, summed it up perfectly when he stated, “I think the decision to raise the fees has had an impact on student thinking. Students do see themselves more as consumers than they used to. They want the best possible degree they can get.”

But, the challenge is, helping universities to recognise this, because if they don’t start delivering against this increased expectation, then the discrepancy is likely to lead to mass dissatisfaction, more complaints and a drop in university applications.

Let’s compare this to a sector prone to high volumes of complaints – the utilities industry. With consumers now empowered to share their voice and raise their concerns, more is being demanded of all elements of service delivery. For example, it’s no longer enough to simply fix a gas leak – one must now ensure they’ve followed the correct identification procedure, are wearing appropriate attire, have clean boots to avoid trampling mud through the property and that they ensure that nothing is broken in the meantime. Small issues when considering the bigger picture of a dangerous gas leak, but issues that consumers will nevertheless raise time and time again in their expectation of great service.

The difference is the attitude towards consumers. Whilst many utility providers now have feedback channels in place so that complaints can be addressed and consumers responded to in real-time, students don’t have the same responsive outlets to voice their feelings.

It’s time for higher education to step up, to ask their students what they are thinking and to act on it before it’s too late. We all know that students are exceptionally social-media savvy, and one bad comment about a lecturer, the student union, the food – is likely to be viewed by hundreds of people across the UK – many of these being potential students. What is important for universities to do is pre-empt this by using something that is quite often glued to their sides – the mobile phone – text them to ask how they’re getting on, ask for feedback and analyse this in a tangible, easily-digested way. Being proactive is key to a university’s survival during what is now the ‘Age of the Consumer’.

One University that is doing exactly that is Royal Holloway who have just introduced listening posts across their University, asking students for their thoughts on facilities – a wise move that will undoubtedly help to reduce drop-out rates and improve student satisfaction.

Nick Boxall-Hunt is Public Sector Manager at customer engagement specialists, Rant & Rave. www.rantandrave.com