Learning from complaints

There is a popular philosophy in business that says that complaints are a gift. As someone who deals with complaints about the OIA’s service, I’m not sure I would go that far. But complaints are valuable.

They provide an insight into what is not working as well as it might be, and they create an opportunity to put things right for the individual student and to improve practice. Whilst some complaints are context-specific, there are often common themes which are of wider relevance. An awareness of these themes can inform approaches to dealing with complaints and, importantly, how to prevent issues arising in the first place.

Satisfaction is closely linked to expectations, and complaints commonly occur when expectations have not been met. A big part of this is of course delivering what has been promised, but managing expectations is important too. Research suggests that there may be some way to go to close the gap between expectations and reality in higher education (see for example last year’s report by HEPI and Unite Students, Reality Check: A report on university applicants’ attitudes and perceptions).

Effective complaining

In the OIA’s case, this means making sure that people who use our service understand our role and remit. We need to make it clear that we look at whether the higher education provider has reached an outcome that is reasonable as well as whether it has fair procedures and has followed them, and also that there are some issues (for example academic judgement) which we cannot look at. At a local level and in the context of handling complaints, managing expectations involves having clear and transparent procedures, and being clear with the individual student about what they can expect and what is expected of them, and what the complaints process will or will not look at.

Effective communication is vital both for preventing issues arising, and for dealing with complaints. It is an essential part of providing a joined-up service, and perhaps especially for building trust with the student. Transitions and interfaces can be weak points, whether between different departments within an organisation (between a disability service and a student’s academic department, say), or different organisations which are involved with the student. It is not a coincidence that the OIA sees many complaints from students whose courses involve more than one organisation, for example professional courses involving placements and courses delivered by one higher education provider and awarded by another. Our good practice guidance on Delivering learning opportunities with others aims to help higher education providers to manage complaints where more than one provider is involved.

In the context of making a complaint, students need to understand the process that is being followed, where they are in that process and what the next steps will be, and how and when they can feed into it. Communication throughout the process is a key part of maintaining confidence and trust in it: unanswered emails or unexplained delays can lead to the student feeling that their complaint is not being dealt with properly or treated seriously; information not being shared or communicated clearly at the right time can create a sense that they are being prevented from participating fully in the process.

Fairness and timeliness

Fairness and the perception of fairness are very important. There is a lot that can and should be done to make sure that students are treated fairly. The OIA’s Good Practice Framework sets out principles and operational guidance for handling complaints and academic appeals fairly and effectively. Perceptions can sometimes be more difficult to address. In some instances a student who is upset or angry may interpret a decision which is not in their favour as a reflection of bias against them. They may not make a distinction between the general unfairness of life (some students face far more difficult situations than others) and the fairness or otherwise of a higher education provider’s actions. Again, communication and maintaining trust as far as possible are key to the subjective experience of fairness.

Timeliness matters too. Delay in addressing issues tends to exacerbate them, allowing positions to become more entrenched and sometimes making it more difficult to reach a workable resolution. For the student, delay can increase frustration and undermine perception of competence. Awaiting the outcome of a complaint can also be an anxious time, especially if the outcome will have a significant impact on their future, and it is important not to prolong this.

Most students do not want to be in conflict with their higher education provider, nor vice versa. Whenever possible, it is usually best for all concerned to resolve issues informally at the earliest opportunity. At any stage of a complaints process, it is worth looking for opportunities to reach a resolution. Even as an ombudsman of last resort, the OIA settles nearly 10 percent of the complaints that come to us, and this can be a good outcome for both the student and the higher education provider. The focus of complaints processes should be on putting things right when they have gone wrong, rather than establishing fault. Alternative dispute resolution is well established in the higher education sector and is a positive alternative to adversarial processes which can create a legal advice arms race and are rarely in the best interests of students.

Listening and learning

Perhaps above all, students want to feel that they have been listened to and understood, and that their concerns have been taken seriously. Where something has gone wrong, it is important to acknowledge that and apologise for it, as well as to take steps to put it right. In some circumstances though, it can be more difficult for the student to feel that they have been heard: their complaint may not be objectively valid, and the outcome they want may not be possible or appropriate. Regardless of the complaint itself, behind it there is often a student who is in difficulty. Recognising this and being empathetic in responding can go some way towards helping them, whatever their complaint or its ultimate outcome.

Dealing with complaints can be challenging, emotionally demanding and at times frustrating. It is important to create an organisational culture in which complaints are not seen as a threat but are recognised for their true value and in which staff are supported to deal with them in a positive way. If we approach complaints in a spirit of open-mindedness and with a commitment to fairness and improving practice, there is a lot we can learn.

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