An investigation by the Times Higher Education Supplement using the Freedom of Information Act has found that students at British universities are whinging more than ever before.

More to the point, they are using universities’ official complaints procedures to assert their right as consumers to get a quality product for their top-up fees. They are second-guessing exam markings and they are speaking up about incompetant lecturers. Good for them.

Some people aren’t happy:

Government officials and student leaders welcomed the findings as a sign that tuition fee-paying students were standing up for their rights.

But lecturers’ union Natfhe warned that an unwelcome “commodification” of higher education was leading to a complaints culture that was diverting time and resources away from teaching and research while putting intolerable pressure on lecturers faced with often spurious allegations.

“Students are no longer students — they are customers,” said Andy Pike, national official in the universities department at Natfhe.

In an excellent example of journalistic research using the Freedom of Information Act, the THES obtained the official complaints from 104 higher education institutions. The figures showed that students made 8,682 formal complaints and appeals in 2004, up from 6,796 the previous year.

The substantive question is, will complaining do students any good? Will universities be responsive to the needs and desires of students who are shelling out an awful lot of money to them? I doubt it.

Back when I was undergraduate, and tuition fees had just been introduced, I wrote a comment piece in my student rag suggesting that since tuition fees were now a given, students should embrace the consumer culture of complaining.

The point of the article was that we students should be cynical that our new position as consumers would improve the services offered to us.

To put it mildly, it wasn’t the most popular thing I ever wrote. A bunch of anarchists labled me the “class enemy of the month” in their magazine for daring to suggest anything good could come out of the commodification of education. Oh dear.

THES subscribers can get some details of the complaints students are making, and the sort of compensation they are getting:

Have you heard about the student who was awarded £200 by Aston University after getting stuck in a lift and missing a lecture?

Or the student at Plymouth University who was refunded £62.50 in course fees because of dissatisfaction “with the timing and quality of feedback” for an assessment?

Then there’s the student whose bus fare was refunded after a lecture was cancelled without notice.

Institutions reported that £326,423 was paid out in compensation or in course and hall fee refunds — although most complaints are resolved without payments.

De Montfort University has paid out £8,766 over the past three years, the London School of Economics £10,000, Plymouth University £13,000 and Bristol University £27,000.

But Surrey University paid out the most, almost £68,000 — a sum it said “comprised an award to a PhD student and payments made to other students (including fees refunds) across the period”.

Graham McAnuff this year won a landmark £9,000 in compensation from Oxford Brookes University, alongside about a dozen colleagues, after his career was delayed by the university’s repeated failure to gain professional accreditation for an osteopathy course.