Behind the scenes of student complaints adjudication

After long months of exam procrastination – applying for internships instead of revising – I finally got an internship at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. At least this could be considered practical procrastination.

As a student who would consider themselves informed about the ins and outs of the world, even I didn’t know what or who the OIA or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator was until I researched before my interview. I reflected several weeks later whether my lack of knowledge of the OIA said more about me as a student, or on my university – or even the OIA itself. If I a student who believed themselves to have an okay understanding of how the world worked didn’t know about the OIA, how many other students were not finding out until it was too late?

Nonetheless, I understood the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in layman’s terms to be a student complaints reviewer. It was the last and final organisation outside of a student’s institution which someone could complain to, once they have completed all their own institutions internal procedures. I also got my head around the “completion of procedures letter”, which I heard being thrown around like precious gold. In short – no ‘‘completion of procedures letter’’, no OIA – except in exceptional circumstances.

This sounded more to me like an extension of an already draining and exacerbating process – all on top of university deadlines, and mounting pressure from family and friends who can’t comprehend why your every waking moment is focused on the next update on your complaint.

I’ve been there

While I haven’t complained to the OIA, I have had my fair share of a lengthy and tiresome complaints. I was (and to some extent still now) that angry complainant who feels the world is completely unjust, and simply won’t hear anything other than I am right and they were wrong. My time at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator however did help me to understand the importance of process in decision making. Was the outcome reasonable? Was the process fair? Now I at least know that I have somewhere external to my university I can go to if I want to.

Working at the OIA did make me start to question some aspects of my own university experience. Firstly, whether I should’ve complained about that badly disorganised module I took, and if I should have considered filing a claim with my university for distress and inconvenience when they issued the wrong second year exam results. I am paying £9250 a year for this, so like any product I buy or dip into my overdraft to get, I at least would expect the product to be up to standard.

My time at the OIA

I got used to waking up for a nine am start. Most days started with two chocolate covered digestive biscuits, and a cup of Earl Grey tea. The air-conditioned office was a godsend, and so was the desk by the window not that there much to look out on except an apartment building opposite. That ruled out people watching on the street to avoid work.

My desk sat opposite the frontline case support team – and there were some interesting callers. They were confused as to who the OIA was and what exactly they could do to fix the great wrong in their student lives, whether it was concerning accommodation issues or unfair marking. I also got to experience how the OIA delivered outreach work to institutions through webinars and workshops. I imagined that institutions would be falling over themselves to be able to participate in these events to learn more in how to help students with the OIA process, though it wasn’t always the case.

Like the transition from school to university, my thoughts and ideas were all of a sudden valued and became crucial in shaping a toolkit. What would I – a disgruntled student – need from my SU if I was making a complaint? A flyer for external support? A diagram of the process of the OIA?

The OIA was a little cosmopolitan town, with each department running in its own way but always learning, always growing. Thursday afternoons had a dedicated time to discuss complicated cases, or how institutions may have treated their students and the resolutions they offered. I was sometimes surprised by some of the outcomes offered to students despite what had happened to them. Meetings were held with the Disability Experts Panel to advise on mitigating circumstances, and disability issues to ensure the OIA was best informed before making final decisions.

Some cases were locked down because of the nature of the case, others sent straight through to a case handler because of the urgency of needing to address an issue. Cases were never just stuck in pile gathering dust.

Data

One of my roles was to look at the collation of institutions’ complaints regulations, and I was surprised at the various ways in these documents that the OIA was referred to so tentatively. I wondered if these documents were more there to dissuade a student instead of empowering them. Was that why I was here to show students can be empowered in this place, and be a way to show the OIA is here for students?

It was amusing to note on the project I worked on how you could easily tell by the comments from higher education institutions who worked closely with students, and who had probably never met one since they had been at university. There appeared still to be a lot of work to do to break down the barriers and remove the us versus them mentality.

Why couldn’t everyone just see that whether you are a student or institution, things can only be improved if it is a collaborative transparent process? I don’t want to take away from students or institutions own experience, but my time at the OIA showed me an environment which wanted to improve itself and individuals they worked with. I just wish more people knew about it or even better never needed to do.

2 responses to “Behind the scenes of student complaints adjudication

  1. Ideally, SRBs and Registry should be working in partnership to create regulations that work and there would be no need for the OIA. There is a Jam lyric that comes to mind ‘but you find out life isn’t like that….’

    Casework can be very adversarial. There is simply so much at stake now that the HE system has been marketised. That is where the ‘us and them’ culture can come from. Complaints can be a very pressurised environment. The Registry Team that I used to deal with were understaffed and the last thing you need in that situation is a bolshy SU rep pointing out that the regulations are not being followed correctly.

  2. If an institution is understaffed it doesn’t really excuse how some places treat their students. I would rather have a “bulshy SU rep” reminding my institution about following their own regulations and fix the problem early on. Otherwise you get a lot of institutions getting away with bad practise, and nothing ever being done to change and improve.

    If university was free maybe it would be different, but if I’m choosing to take out a £50,000 loan. I would at least expect an institution to follow their rules, and not make excuses when the issue is bad practise not understaffing. You can have all the funding and staff but bad practise still occurs, hence the need for some accountability by organisations like the OIA.

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