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When universities charge fees, they'd better improve their customer service

A word of advice to academics: charging hefty tuition fees will warrant a high demand from students for good service, or their money back.

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Monday morning marked the return to routine, classes and trips to the library. Students started classes on subjects they had chosen to enrol in months ago.

Sorting through individual module choices and organising personal timetables for each student is a task for administrators that I cannot imagine the enormity of and one that I do not envy. Perhaps the only saving grace is that it is slaved over during the quieter summer months.

However, with all that time to check spreadsheets and databases, there are still errors or clashes. Yesterday, I left to go to two lectures scheduled at the same time without any way of knowing which subject I would have to abandon and which would become my regular Monday morning fixture, despite emails and replies ricocheting between me and the two departments. One blamed the other  for tardy advertising of its schedules, causing the clash in my timetable.

Despite shuffling between the French and English departments searching for an answer to the impossible task of me being in two places at the same time, I was more or less left on my own.

The situation was not, I believe, anyone's fault, but it was nonetheless an issue, and an issue for which no one seemed to claim a role in helping to fix. To summarise, I was experiencing bad customer service.

Now, let me be clear, it is not my intention to rant about an error that has cropped up affecting me or many other students, but to point out as an example that this experience of dealings and correspondence with students could have the potential to rocket to a high level of consumer disappointment.

In the not too distant future, when students from all over the world come to Scottish universities ready to pay thousands upon thousands of pounds for an interesting and balanced education, and they are told that, tough luck, they can't get what they signed up for, you will have some very disappointed young people.

Moreover, these people might want to start waving their receipts and chits for fees in the faces of their tutors and claim better service.

The vocabulary used to talk about higher education institutes is changing because universities and fees have emphasised the business element of education and that it is, at the end of the day, serving customers. It is a dialogue between consumers and employees, not just students and academics.

This consumerist approach to university was lauded by a vice-chancellor of one of Britain's private universities, the University of Buckingham, who were charging £9000 a year before anyone else.

In “The Assault on Universities, A Manifesto for Resistance”, Des Freedman quotes the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, Terence Kealey, as saying: "It is only when services are paid for that their beneficiaries really appreciate them and that their employees strive to perfect them."

The start of this statement may be true and it is a line of thought that young people are being encouraged to take. However, the real problem is the employees who face the customer, or student, every day and who do not seem to be schooled in the practice of good customer service.

I know academics want to spend time on research proposals and applications for research grants to please their heads of department, but these same bosses need to encourage their colleagues to lift their heads up from the books and speak to their students.

From the people who have spoken to me about this blog and those who have commented on it, it appears that the running theme from adult readers is to stop moaning and be grateful for the education me and my classmates receive.

It is not that I am ungrateful at all, but my whole aim is to broaden people's understanding of what life at university is currently like. To be a student currently studying in our country's universities is surely more solid proof about the ins and outs of our education system than the numbers and conjectures that form the Higher Education White Paper or Browne Review on Education.

When I felt frustrated at my unresolved timetable clash and bluntly worded emails telling me I'd have to give up what I had chosen, I was told it could have been worse. I could, after all, be in the French system, where bureaucracy is a snakes and ladders game.

But it could also end up worse for the academics and university staff. Students may soon be tempted to ask for a money back guarantee if tutors don't start brushing up on their smiles and their "have a nice day" catchphrases.

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