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Learning from complaints

Felicity Mitchell discusses updates to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s Good Practice Framework

The vision of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator is that students are always treated fairly. To that end, one of our priorities is to share learning from complaints with higher education providers, student representative bodies, students and others to help improve policies and practices and, ultimately, the student experience.

A cornerstone of this is our Good Practice Framework, which sets out principles and operational guidance for higher education providers, drawing on our broad experience in handling student complaints. The main section—on handling complaints and academic appeals—was first published in 2014, with a second, updated edition published in 2016.

This year, we have been revisiting this section, taking the views of student representative bodies, higher education providers and the steering group—which includes representatives from the Academic Registrars’ Council, the Association of Heads of University Administration, the National Union of Students and the Quality Assurance Agency—to see what is standing the test of time and what needs further development and updates.

While the eight core principles of accessibility, fairness, clarity, independence, proportionality, confidentiality, timeliness and improving the student experience generally stand up well, we have identified some areas that we want to develop or expand.

Group complaints

Over the years, there has been a steady rise in the number of complaints coming to us that are brought by a group of students rather than individuals. They are mostly small groups of fewer than 50 students, although we have had one large group of around 400.

We encourage providers to have a process in place for managing complaints about the same issues from a number of students. Some students may feel more confident complaining as part of a group, and it reduces the work involved for individual students. It can also significantly reduce the burden on staff who are managing the administration and investigating the complaints.

Resolving a group complaint might be more straightforward than resolving lots of individual complaints, both for the provider and for us, but deciding on a suitable remedy can be more complicated. We find that identifying a remedy can be particularly difficult when the provider hasn’t engaged with the detail of the complaint. If time is invested at an early stage to try to understand why the students are unhappy and to address their concerns, rather than providers reacting defensively, the complaint is likely to be easier to resolve.

We will be developing guidance on when it might be helpful to treat complaints from several individual students as a group complaint, when it might be better to keep them separate and how to manage a group complaint effectively.

Multiple procedures

Another issue that is often raised is what to do when a student’s concerns involve more than one process. This might be a student who makes an academic appeal that raises issues that would be better considered through the complaints process, a student who makes a complaint about another student or a staff member that needs to be considered under a disciplinary process, or a student whose case is or might be considered under disciplinary, ‘fitness for practice’ and ‘support for study’ processes.

Where more than one process is or might be engaged, it can be difficult to decide which takes priority. In some cases, it is necessary to pause one process, engage in another and then go back to the first process. It is important to make it clear to the student what is happening, in what order and, where possible, who will be involved at each stage. It is also important, before starting the formal process, to take a step back and assess whether the student’s concerns can be resolved informally.

Formal processes should form a structure that supports the ultimate aim of resolving students’ complaints and concerns, rather than a straitjacket. We have long advocated a flexible approach that allows providers to look for ways to address a student’s issues without necessarily having to establish how or why they have arisen or whose fault it is. This approach can mend relationships before they break down irretrievably and can stop complaints escalating and becoming mired in what might become a long and stressful process.

With different processes in play, it can be difficult to make sure that individuals making decisions on the student’s case are coming to it afresh, without bias or the perception of bias. This is even more challenging in smaller providers, which might have a limited pool of individuals to call on.

We will be expanding guidance in the Good Practice Framework on the interplay between different processes, how to recognise a reasonable perception of bias and how to avoid it, and how to foster a more flexible, student-focused approach to complaints.

Student support

In many providers, the disruption caused by the pandemic has had a serious impact on student support and advice services, and on complaints and appeals departments. This is making it more difficult for students to access support and advice, leading to more complaints and appeals that are taking longer to resolve.

For disabled students and those struggling with their mental health, these issues can be particularly acute. Delays in accessing external support and NHS services, and issues with disability assessments and funding, are being compounded by problems in accessing hard-pressed support and advice services at their provider. We are hearing that some disabled students feel they have no option but to drop their complaint, or even abandon their studies, because they no longer have the energy to continue.

Whatever the issue or process, supporting the student is key. This is particularly important in processes that might lead to the student having to leave their studies, such as disciplinary or ‘fitness for practice’ proceedings. Academic appeals can also be stressful because of the high stakes, even though the process tends to be fairly straightforward.

Making a complaint about bullying or harassment can be traumatic for the reporting student. But any complaint or appeal process can be stressful. Well-resourced student advice and support services are worth the investment. Students who feel that they are not properly supported or listened to are more likely to be unhappy with the outcome of a process—even one that is objectively fair.

As we emerge from the pandemic, providers, students and those who support them continue to face many challenges and competing demands on resources. It is important that complaints and related processes, and the value of learning from complaints, are not overlooked in all of this. We will be publishing the draft updated Good Practice Framework section on handling complaints and academic appeals for consultation, with a view to publishing the final version towards the end of the year. We look forward to engaging positively with students and the sector around this work to help make complaints processes as effective and as positive as possible for all involved.

Felicity Mitchell is the independent adjudicator at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.