A general survey at universities and universities of applied sciences has shown that students have never submitted this many complaints before. “This student-unfriendly attitude is on the increase. And the more unfriendly an institution, the more complaints it gets.”

‘An average student who probably won’t have much chance of a job after she graduates.’ That’s how Erasmus University described a former Psychology student last spring who filed a claim for compensation after her study programme was delayed for a year. The student had enrolled for a master programme at VU Amsterdam, but she had to do one more resit in the summer.

The result of this exam was a 5.2, and this fail mark meant she had to wait a year before starting her master programme. But during the exam review, it turned out that there was a mistake in the multiple-choice answer sheet for the exam. And the student should have scored a 5.5, which was good enough for her to be able to start her master programme. But the exam review wasn’t held until after 1 September and by that time it was too late to start her programme at VU.

The student brought a lawsuit against Erasmus University in which she claimed almost 23,000 euros as compensation. The mistake made when marking her paper – and the fact that the lecturer was slow to respond – meant that her graduation was delayed for a whole year. The university ignored her claim, but the court ruled in the student’s favour. She was awarded 9,000 euros in compensation and EUR was ordered to pay the costs of the proceedings.

From a general survey at higher education institutions, it emerges that students are submitting more and more complaints about their binding study advice or examination marks. Do these students have a point, or are they going a bit too far? And what does this increase actually tell us?

Binding study advice, exam marks or fraud.

If students disagree with a decision made by their university, they can lodge an appeal with the Board of Appeal for Examinations (CBE) or with the Executive Board, depending on the cause for complaint. The vast majority of complaints are sent to the CBE and concern the binding study advice, exam marks or fraud. Matters dealt with by the Executive Board include complaints about tuition fees and enrolment problems.

Both these boards have had a lot of complaints to handle during the past few years. “It really is getting a bit much,” as Willem Beijk, the then secretary of the Appeals Tribunal for Higher Education (CBHO) in The Hague, said in 2012. Students can lodge an appeal at this tribunal if the relevant higher education institution does not prove them right.

Aantal beroepschrijften blijft toenemen

‘Students go looking for each other on shared Facebook pages so that they can air their dissatisfaction. This means they’re more likely to call the lecturer to account on matters like exam questions.’

Hanneke van Mier, Maastricht University

An inventory drawn up by the Higher Education Press Agency shows that the number of appeals submitted to the CBEs is still on the increase. Twelve universities (Eindhoven University of Technology was unable to give any figures) received about 1,700 official complaints in 2013 and 1,900 the following year, and this sudden increase rose again, to 2,000 complaints in 2015. It would seem that the end is not yet in sight.

This increase causes some concern at Maastricht University now and again. Dr Hanneke van Mier, head of the Psychology Examining Board, says: “We’ve even seen advertisements posted by small companies during the past few years, offering students legal aid if they don’t agree with their binding study advice.”

She adds that social media play a major role in all this. “Students go looking for each other on shared Facebook pages so that they can air their dissatisfaction. This means they’re more likely to call the lecturer to account on matters like exam questions.”

The authorities at Maastricht University have considered taking measures to make it more difficult for students to submit appeals. “Right now it’s very easy for anyone to appeal; it doesn’t cost students anything. But if you charge them a small sum, they might think twice before submitting a complaint,” says Dr van Mier. But it seems that this is legally unfeasible.

number of appeals submitted stable in Rotterdam

‘Students just want to talk to somebody.’

Sabiha El Ghafour, Erasmus University

The number of appeals submitted in Rotterdam during the past few years has remained fairly stable. According to CBE secretary Sabiha El Ghafour, this may well be due to the stringent requirements for first-year students in force at Erasmus University. These students have to score a total of 60 points to get a positive binding study advice: “So this means that they aren’t unprepared for a negative advice,” says Ms El Ghafour.

She adds that more appeals might have been submitted. “Our examining boards invest a lot of time and energy in talking to students. That way they hear a lot of complaints.” Ms El Ghafour feels that this preventive approach works well: “Students just want to talk to somebody. And you can see this during the interviews: they’re happy that someone is actually listening to them and taking their grievances seriously.”

'Students are becoming more assertive'

An increasing number of students in higher professional education are complaining as well. The total number of appeals submitted at the 12 universities of applied sciences interviewed has reached a record level. This number dropped after 2012, the year in which the long study fine was implemented, but rose again in 2015 when students submitted a record number of more than 3,300 complaints.

“Students are becoming more assertive,” says Margot Custers, spokesperson at Avans University of Applied Sciences, where the number of complaints almost doubled in a couple of years. But she is expecting this number to drop again since fewer appeals have been submitted than this time last year.

Stenden University of Applied Sciences has a different explanation. Spokesperson Peter Mulder says: “We’ve made it clearer to students where they can go to with their complaints during the past few years.” And this is proving successful, because the number of complaints doubled in 2015. So that’s actually a good sign. “Don’t forget that a lot has changed for students during the past years as well,” Mr Mulder adds. “You can see this in the figures.”

Informal chat

‘These binding study advices are given between 1 July and 1 August, just when all the lecturers and staff are about to go on holiday’

Willem Beijk, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

Anyone wanting to know how to get through the huge pile of complaints could maybe ask around at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. This institution absolutely leads the field when it comes to complaints in higher professional education, as its students have submitted no fewer than 800 appeals. But many more appeals were submitted only a short while back: the institution received more than 1,300 appeals in 2011.

“The fact that staff at the Legal Affairs department went round giving students information probably helps,” says Willem Beijk, who was appointed chairman of the institution’s CBE last year. Lecturers and examining boards are encouraged to resolve problems in consultation with students, which eventually means they don’t have to submit any complaints. “In far too many cases, this is only done during the compulsory settlement discussions held before the CBE handles the appeals. You can see that lecturers and students are able to reach agreement pretty soon, but the appeals still count in the statistics.”

But this kind of informal chat doesn’t always take place. Sometimes there just isn’t time for one, like if a student is sent away with a binding study advice. “These binding study advices are given between 1 July and 1 August, just when all the lecturers and staff are about to go on holiday,” Mr Beijk adds. “Students get the impression that if they don’t agree with the advice given, they should go to the CBE.”

Not scared

So students have to stick to their guns. Student organisations like the Dutch National Union of Students (LSVb) and the Dutch Student Association (ISO) feel it’s a good thing that students are becoming more assertive. “It means that students are aware of their rights and they aren’t scared of their university or university of applied sciences,” says Jarmo Berkhout of LSVb.

Jan Sinnige of ISO agrees. “It’s extremely important for students to stick up for their rights,” he says. He referred to the recent problems with the binding study advice for second-year students, when it turned out that a lot of programmes were breaking the law and unjustly sending students away.

'Too few complaints'

So on the one hand there’s concern about the flood of complaints in higher education, but on the other hand, it seems as if this means that students are able to justify themselves. Are these students “moaning minnies” or have they got a point? We asked former judge and University of Amsterdam lecturer Ben Olivier, whose resignation as president of the CBHO (Appeals Tribunal for Higher Education) caused quite a stir last spring.

“Too many complaints? Not at all!” Mr Olivier says. “I’ll say this again: if you look at the number of unpleasant decisions universities and universities of applied sciences take, you can see that students aren’t submitting nearly enough complaints.”

‘This student-unfriendly attitude is on the increase. And the more unfriendly an institution, the more complaints it gets.’

Ben Olivier, former president CBHO

According to Mr Olivier, higher education institutions are treating their students in an increasingly cavalier way: “For instance, it’s absolutely amazing how difficult it is to get hold of higher education institutions. This student-unfriendly attitude is on the increase. And the more unfriendly an institution, the more complaints it gets.”

He feels it’s absolutely appalling that higher education institutions are so bad at following their own procedures. “The law clearly states that if a student submits an appeal, the examining board has to discuss this with the student to see if they can settle the matter amicably,” he says. “But this hardly ever happens. This is a real text-book case of how student-unfriendly educational institutions are nowadays.”

But it’s possibly a matter of money after all. Mr Olivier points out that the government has made drastic cutbacks in the budget for education during the past years. “Austerity measures have an impact on legal protection,” he says. “Higher education institutions always claim that their priorities are education and research. But they’re forgetting that legal protection for students and staff is a vital part of the organisation.”

More cases handled at Appeals Tribunal

If students aren’t satisfied with the outcomes of their appeals, do they take the matter to court? The answer is yes. The Appeals Tribunal for Higher Education in The Hague has been a lot busier since 2010, when it handled 100 student appeal cases. This number had more than tripled by 2015, when the court handled no fewer than 367 appeal cases.

However, this increase seems to have levelled off a bit in 2016. The current CBHO secretary, Monique van Fessem, says: “This is because there haven’t been many major changes in the law during the past year. But there are still a lot of cases pending this year that concern the binding study advice, which we’re still dealing with.” Since higher education institutions have meanwhile amended their regulations on the binding study advice, the number of court cases involving this issue will probably drop again.