Complaints – student engagement in its richest form?

There has been much in the pages of Wonkhe (and other reputable higher education publications) in recent weeks and months about student engagement, the role of the ‘student voice’ and student/provider relations.

Liz Austen’s insightful piece on institutional research, and Leigh Spanner’s look at when student data doesn’t amount to ‘student voice’, both bore down on the challenges and nuances around the typology of student engagement, looking at how data is collected, interpreted and presented. Despite the challenges, the concept of engaging with students to improve the learning experience is accepted for the most part as necessary, if not absolutely vital.

If we needed proof, despite a brief wobble, student engagement is also now firmly fixed on the HE agenda for the foreseeable. From this summer, under the revised Quality Code, providers will be expected to actively engage their students both individually and collectively ‘in the quality of their educational experience’ and in its ‘development, assurance and enhancement’ (‘core’ and ‘common’ practices respectively). So, at a minimum, students can expect to be consulted about matters relating to the standard and quality of their learning experience, and may even be called upon to play a more active role in shaping and enhancing it.

Me or us? collective vs individual…

There are of course distinctions to be drawn between the modes of ‘collective’ and ‘individual’ engagement. While I won’t get in to all of that here (actual books have been written about such things), academic representation and staff/student fora spring to mind as obvious examples of ‘collective’ engagement. There is of course the NSS, as well as innumerable methods employed at a local level, for assessing individual engagement and satisfaction. But what if the timing or severity of an individual student’s circumstances mean that it’s either too late to engage with conventional forms of collective engagement, or unlikely that filling out a survey would result in the outcome they want?

Next stop ‘Complaintsville’?

It is normally at around this point that a student will dust off their student handbook, or click through their union’s advice pages (if they’re fortunate enough to have one), to find out what to do next. Individual students might then ‘actively engage’ their provider in a formal complaint or appeal, or indeed both.

It’s hard to view complaints as a ‘gift’ and some may see them as representing the less welcome form of student voice. Granted, it’s not engagement in the traditional or collegial sense, but it is engagement all the same, both active and, for the most part, individual. Besides, ‘to engage’ can also mean to battle, fight or contest. That said, are complaints any less important than other forms of student engagement or feedback? I suggest that students’ views seen through the lens of complaints, while framed differently, are no less valuable than data yielded by checking a box marked ‘strongly disagree’ on a survey, and you don’t need to run a prize draw to get people to fill them out. Providers can tap into that intelligence to learn from student complaints and in turn improve and enhance their students’ learning experience.

Complaints offer providers their most direct, frank and pointed form of engagement. And while a variety of useful data can be drawn from complaints, it’s their qualitative nature and the first-hand and often unmediated views expressed within them, that distinguishes them from other methods of engagement. Of course, many complaints will be unsuccessful, but those that shine a light on poor practice or service shortfalls, or even misunderstandings and inadequate communication, can be mined as a cost-effective form of preventative maintenance.

For the benefit of all?

If we learn from them, complaints should complement conventional methods of capturing the ‘student voice’ and bring about positive change across an institution. This is a key principle of our Good Practice Framework for handling complaints and academic appeals. When we visit providers we often ask whether learning points or the themes emerging from complaints are being shared, for instance between faculties and departments, student unions, or elsewhere within the provider. Encouragingly, there are good examples of how providers capture and share this learning internally. Taking corrective action is also evidence of a provider’s willingness to listen to and act upon student feedback to enhance and improve its services and teaching provisions.

Students are often unwitting beneficiaries of those who complained to their provider (or represented their peers) before them. Improvements made following their complaints can impact not only themselves but others within their cohort or indeed across their institution. It is natural for a complainant to think about what’s in it for them, because they might not be around to see or benefit from the changes their actions might secure. But students who complain to the OIA often tell us that they understand that their situation might be irretrievable, but they don’t want what happened to them happening to anyone else.

There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first.

Thus said Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in ‘A study in Scarlet’. Replace ‘misdeeds’ with ‘complaints’ and the analogy rings true. I am not suggesting that the golden answers to everything lie in complaints, but incremental if not substantial improvements can be made by taking a healthy approach to what can be learned from complaints. When providers come to think about how they can meet the requirements of collective and individual engagement, they might want to consider complaints as the low-lying fruit: no survey can take the place of the actively engaging individual students.

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4 responses to “Complaints – student engagement in its richest form?

  1. Thanks Barry! An interesting and (for me) new perspective on complaints and the student voice that has got me thinking. My institution (not alone, I suspect) is constantly trying to find new ways to “capture the student voice” – the outcome often being the invention of yet another survey. I’m generally of the view that we are awash with information about, and feedback from, our students and that we could make much better use of what we already have. I’m not aware that we’ve adopted the perspective of “complaints as student voice” and I think it would be a very useful and insightful exercise.

  2. This is a very interesting perspective! Out of interest, does the OIA take any part in analysing complaints in order to play the information back to the sector in any way?

  3. Unfortunately, serious complaints – perhaps related to the Equality Act – can bring out a form of institutional bullying as the University acts in bad faith from day 1 to shape a potential legal defence in case of litigation from the “student as consumer”. I have experience of this from a top University that should know better, indicating that there is no interest in learning from student complaints or considering them as a form of engagement.

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