New supercomplaints procedures could be a gamechanger for SUs

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the slogans at Malmo University Students’ Union in Sweden is “the union is BIG when you feel small”.

It’s a reference to the role the SU plays in representing students to the university – the idea that via the union, David feels better able to take on and interact with Goliath. Where there is a fight, the SU makes it a fairer one.

I thought of it this week when I saw the publication of proposals by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) on changing its scheme rules to accommodate Large Group Complaints. On the face of it, it all looks like good news for students.

In recent years there have been events affecting the higher education sector that have had the potential to lead to large numbers of complaints to the OIA, including the impact of Covid-19 and the unprecedented disruption it continues to cause. While those events don’t necessarily lead to large groups of students complaining to OIA, it’s important that it is properly prepared and that it can handle large group complaints in a way that works for everyone involved.

Over on the main site, we’ve looked at OIA’s proposed Large Group Complaints process – a bespoke approach to handling complaints from large groups of students – in detail. The proposed process is intended to be used for complaints at a single provider where there is a high degree of commonality between the complaints and where the complaints could be considered collectively.

Although the process it is proposing would be more streamlined than its current process for group complaints, its approach to decision making would be the same – it would still consider what is “fair and reasonable” in the circumstances.

On the face of it, this looks like great news for students. But there are interesting and urgent questions for students unions about what could be both a major opportunity and a major challenge when it comes to getting things done for students. The proposals are potentially what the youth call a “gamechanger” – and smart SUs will want to win that game.

Simples

In most university students’ unions, there’s a neat split between what many would call “advice” and “voice”.

For individuals with a problem, advice centres offer confidential support in raising complaints that are particular to the way that student has been treated.

But for groups with a gripe, there’s voice. Sabbatical officers raise things on behalf of the whole study body (or at least parts of it), and reps raise things on behalf of students at course, faculty, department or school level.

In many unions there’s long been complicated conversations about the relationship between those two things. Some of that is about sharing data and using statistics to ensure that “voice” can work on changing things so that “advice” sees less cases of a particular type. And some of it – particularly since student consumer rights have been on the scene – is about being clear with students and reps and officers and staff how cases and issues should “enter” the union, and where they should “land”. When is an issue raised by a rep in a committee better framed as a formal complaint?

There are both internal process issues and power issues here. If five international students with a similar issue raise things as a formal complaint with help from an SU advice centre, they can get as far as the OIA to adjudicate on their case if the university isn’t helpful. OIA’s rulings tend to be viewed as binding. But that would potentially only benefit the five that complained.

On the other hand, an international students’ officer or a sabb looking after that portfolio could raise the issue and potentially get it fixed for all international students. But it’s not like SU officers or reps that disagree with a university’s approach over something can call in an adjudicator from the OIA.

Both a challenge and an opportunity

So “large group complaints” (which OIA says means around 100 students or more) make things very interesting indeed. For example – OIA says that students in a Large Group Complaint would be able to appoint a representative to handle the complaint on their behalf, in the same way individual students or smaller groups whose complaints are considered under its usual processes can. There would be no requirement to appoint a representative, representatives would not need to be legally qualified, and it wouldn’t have to be an SU officer or rep.

In other words, LGCs would involve group advocacy with a rep. Like “voice” does now.

On the one hand, if large groups of students – a cohort on a course, or across a faculty, or students with particular characteristics, or even all students have an issue, the prospect of having adjudication from OIA may be very attractive and increase the prospects of their issue being handled in favour. As such, SUs may want to be very close to that process – advertising it, facilitating it, encouraging it and providing reps for it.

But on the other hand, universities are likely to take a dim view of their own SU being very close to that process – if the SU is advertising it, facilitating it, encouraging it and providing reps for it the university may be very unhappy at the external scrutiny and exposure, affecting the ongoing relationship between the SU and university.

It’s a fascinating and urgent dilemma for SU officers, managers and boards to consider. Right now you may have large groups of Disabled students who feel they have not received the appropriate reasonable adjustments to participate in their course. You may have large numbers of students on particularly practical courses that are unhappy at the revised arrangements being put in place to help them learn online. You may have a mass of students arguing they have not experienced what they were promised agitating for refunds or redress.

There’s no doubt that Large Group Complaints may give some students the confidence to get involved where many wouldn’t even sign a letter. It may also be a useful way to convert often pointless petitions into powerful proposals to achieve redress where students have a decent case. As I say – it may all put the SU in a very difficult position. But it’s a position that would be worse if these LGCs take off without SUs.

But I’m not the only one

Imagine for example that a high profile LGC gets press coverage over the next few months. It won’t take long for that to go viral – and students around the UK could suddenly be signing LGCs (which OIA says they could do quite late on in the process) and having formal meetings both with the university and potentially the OIA without the SU’s involvement.

In an ideal world, both OfS and OIA would work together to try to ensure that students’ unions were in some way badged up to support LGCs or accredited and protected in some way to do so. And universities are going to want to review their own procedures and rules – this may well be a good moment to strengthen any wording on ensuring that SUs are involved in some way or that complainants are referred to SUs for support.

Of course, these LGCs can’t solve the issues of poor government policy, the way restrictions have been enforced on universities or the pandemic more generally. But as universities refer grievances to government and vice versa, in the absence of the courts some clarity from OIA on what it considers to be acceptable or not from a university point of view will be very helpful.

And if there are potential wins – SUs will want to be supporting and driving them, not standing adjacent to them.

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