The Dubai case highlights the growing need for greater institutional accountability for learning outcomes and teaching effectiveness, in all levels of education.
Greater public scrutiny will make professional services better
In Dubai, The National reported this month, a father successfully sued a school for "failure to educate" his son. The school was found negligent, and the father was awarded Dh 77,000.
The case highlights the growing need for greater institutional accountability for learning outcomes and teaching effectiveness, in all levels of education.
In the US in recent years there have been a spate of cases - at Lehigh University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Texas Southern University, to name three - of students suing after they received marks they considered unfairly low. All those students lost in court, but this trend reveals the pressure on educators and institutions to be able to rigorously, objectively justify the grades they award.
And the trend goes beyond education. In the information age, consumers are empowered by instant access to comparative performance reports, price rankings, and articles on best practice in many fields.
Some commentators have heralded the information age for bringing about "the death of the expert".
Anything an "expert" tells us can now be checked - with more or less accuracy - by means of just a few mouse clicks. Ease of access to information has led to calls for even greater transparency, to demonstrate quality, effectiveness and equity.
This pressure is also evident in medicine and health care; a sector traditionally populated by powerful experts - medical doctors.
The recent scandal at Stafford Hospital in the UK highlights this point dramatically.
There, complaints of appalling standards of care led regulators to investigate, and they found a nightmare - higher-than-expected patient mortality rates amounting to as many as 1,200 more deaths than statistically expected, over the period from 2005 to 2008.
How could such shoddy treatment go undetected for so long? The answer is that people trust doctors, who have for centuries enjoyed almost unparalleled professional autonomy.
Scandals like this one are catalysts for change, which can be remarkably rapid now. The dawn of the information age has ushered in an era of evidence-based medicine, and given birth to empowered healthcare consumers, so-called "expert patients".
People now demand treatment based on the latest research evidence, not simply whatever treatment their busy physician might be familiar with.
This has led to increased power for regulatory agencies to set standards and to report publicly on excellence, compliance - and failure.
These changes resonate with the nascent quality improvement initiatives in education. Like physicians, professors have traditionally enjoyed great autonomy, with very little emphasis on transparent accountability.
But now easy access to research literature on best teaching practices makes it less tenable for educators to simply do what they always did.
Competitive universities saw this change on the horizon years ago, and are becoming more transparently accountable, and are increasingly using innovative evidence-based teaching practices.
Of course, the great majority of college professors- and of healthcare professionals - respect high standards of professional integrity. Most professors strive steadily to be more effective teachers, even while they do research to broaden the boundaries of human knowledge.
Still, in education as in health care and other professions, there are individuals who fall short of their obligations.
In many cases transparency and accountability should help us identify and support such individuals, not to blame and punish them.
Sometimes however, in a given institution the failures can be systemic: that is, organisational factors are at the root of the problem. The imposition of overly large class-sizes, a lack of coherent policy/procedure and a shortage of textbooks would all be educational examples of this kind of problem.
Identifying and solving such systemic failings is even more important than dealing with individual problems, because they can affect more people.
Institutions that respond to such problems effectively will help prevent the rise of education's own Stafford Hospital.
Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi