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Stand firm under scrutiny

Everyone is a customer now. Even this week's report about plans to introduce compulsory training for the unemployed refers to them as customers of Jobcentre Plus. It's the same with college students.

Colleges market themselves like any other business. Many call the places students go for information and assistance "customer service centres". So it's not too surprising that students are beginning to act like customers, and when things are not satisfactory, they feel entitled to complain.

This is what lies behind the National Union of Students' campaign for an independent complaints system that can take over when internal college procedures fail to give satisfaction.

It also stems from the growing recognition of the need to listen to students. Whether it is properly funding student unions or even using teenagers as part of the lesson observation process, colleges are increasingly taking steps to find out the views of their "customers". But if this is not to be mere lip service, students must be able to get redress if things go wrong.

For the lecturer, this may seem like a dismal prospect. It's tough enough getting a room full of 16-year-olds to concentrate, or reintroducing adults to education, without feeling the students are watching like hawks for a mistake to pounce on.

Teaching staff already feel under huge scrutiny - from their colleges, from Ofsted and, most recently, from the Institute for Learning, which has the power to strip them of the right to teach.

Concerns about the protection of staff - and colleges' - reputations from malicious complaints are legitimate. Any complaints process should take this into account.

But if higher education is any guide, individual lecturers are less likely to come under scrutiny than the systems colleges have in place when things go wrong.

Colleges are generally fair and responsive to the needs of their students. They should be able to withstand this kind of scrutiny.

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