Even in turbulent times the OIA can practise kindness in adjudicating complaints

As the number of complaints referred to the independent ombuds continues to increase, outgoing independent adjudicator Felicity Mitchell reflects on the importance of staying human

Felicity Mitchell is the Independent Adjudicator at OIA.

Last week we published our Annual Report for 2022 – always a good time of year to be looking back and taking stock. This year’s report is my last as Independent Adjudicator and, after 19 years working at the OIA, I’ve been in a more than usually reflective mood.

I became Independent Adjudicator in 2017 – a very different world. Since then we’ve had eight Secretaries of State, five to seven ministers of state (depending on how you count them) with six different titles, the implementation of the Higher Education and Research Act and consequent new regulator and expansion of our membership.

We’ve had the relative calm of only two ministers in Wales and the long passage of the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act with another new regulator and further expansion of our remit coming soon. We’ve had the significant impact of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. We’ve had industrial action in the HE and FE sectors and so many other sectors, and the wider impact of the cost of living crisis. We’ve had the closure of GSM and ALRA. And we’ve had the pandemic. It’s been quite a ride.

In 2017 we received 1,635 complaints and closed 1,640. In 2022 we received 2,850 complaints and closed 2,821 (not including a complaint from a large group of students that we account for separately to avoid distorting our reports). It would be an understatement to say that the last five or six years has been a period of sustained growth for us as an organisation. We’ve received – and closed – more cases year on year every year since 2017.

To some extent the steady growth in complaints over the last few years reflects a better awareness of our service. But we know that many students don’t make a complaint, or pursue it, because they find it difficult to navigate formal processes that can seem intimidating, or because they are just too exhausted to.

Outreach and good practice

In 2017 our good practice and outreach work moved up a gear. We significantly increased the number of webinars and events we hosted. We published two new sections of the Good Practice Framework: Supporting disabled students and Delivering learning opportunities with others, which we have begun reviewing and updating for consultation later this year. Since then we have added Requests for additional consideration, Disciplinary procedures, and Fitness to practise and, last year, we revised and updated the original section, Handling complaints and academic appeals.

We’ve also published Briefing Notes and casework notes. Nowadays our good practice work, and the Good Practice Framework which is the cornerstone of it, is such an integral part of the landscape it’s difficult to imagine the sector without it.

A significant development has been our outreach to students through student discussion groups, some of which are for students with particular lived experience, such as disabled students and students of different ethnicities. Last year we also introduced discussion groups for student advisers. The groups give us another way in to students and student representative bodies, and help us to spread a better understanding of who we are and what we do, and how – and when – we might be able to help. They also provide a mine of information about what is going on for students on the ground – students who may never come to us or need to complain.

Human kindness

For us the obvious aspect of delivering a good service is reviewing complaints quickly, efficiently and most of all, fairly. But as well as focusing on these areas of our service we have also worked hard in recent years on the softer elements.

In 2017 we began a process to change the way we communicate with students, working towards a less official tone and plainer English style, dialling back on the formality of our written correspondence. We started using the phone much more often and more recently also to offer video calls. This all helps introduce the human touch to our processes, not only for the sometimes distressed and anxious students but also for the hard-pressed and often very stressed people we liaise with in providers.

Underlying this change has been a positive move to embrace a kinder approach in all aspects of our work. If I was asked to identify one thing I am most proud of after 19 years of working here it would be this. It’s in the nature of our work that there will always be some students who are unhappy with our decisions. But kindness plays an important part in how people experience our process, how they feel about it, and whether they trust it. People who are treated kindly are more likely to accept an outcome even if it’s not what they hoped for.

At the beginning of 2022 we adopted our Commitment to Kindness, based on one developed by Carnegie UK’s Kindness Leadership Network. It identifies six key behaviours and practices that help us to embed and sustain kindness across our organisation. This public expression of our kindness work is important because it reaffirms our values and sets a standard for us to live up to.

This focus on kindness has become increasingly important as we continue to see so many students experiencing mental health issues. Sometimes their complaint is about the support they have received. Sometimes their mental health is affecting how they engage with our processes.

This isn’t a new problem – we included case summaries about mental health issues in our Annual Report for 2017. In 2018 we held a Mental Health and Wellbeing event bringing together providers, students, student representative bodies and sector bodies, including Student Minds and UKCISA. We heard moving accounts from student ambassadors about their experience of mental health difficulties while studying.

But the problem has clearly grown during the last few extraordinarily challenging years. Many providers, student bodies, charities and other sector bodies are doing important work in this area and the OIA will continue to contribute its experiences and learning from complaints to this work.

Disruption and upheaval

Since 2017 students and providers have had to contend with levels of disruption to teaching and learning that we could scarcely have imagined in the pre-pandemic world. Back in 2018 we published our first ever Briefing Note. It was on the subject of industrial action, at the time of the first serious action in the sector since 2006. Since then waves of industrial action have caused disruption for students directly and indirectly, with teachers’ and health service action affecting placement opportunities and caring responsibilities, and transport disruption making it difficult for students, especially those who commute.

All this has meant a rise in the proportion of complaints we have been seeing about service issues (teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities), although this settled back a little in 2022. With a marking boycott on the horizon it’s hard to see this sort of complaint going away. Having good lines of communication with students and student representative bodies will be crucial in identifying concerns, discussing and, hopefully, addressing them before they become complaints.

As I hand over to Helen Megarry at the end of the month the work of the OIA will carry on without missing a beat. The first quarter of the year has given us no reason to think that complaint numbers will fall and casework will no doubt be as busy, and as fascinating as ever.

Using learning from these complaints will continue to be a vital part of the OIA’s outreach work. The OIA will continue the work we’ve been doing with sector bodies on challenging issues such as student mental health, and harassment and sexual misconduct.

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill makes its tortuous progress through parliament the OIA will be working closely with the Office for Students to try to minimise the potential for confusion for students and complexity for providers and make routes for complaints as clear as possible.

As an organisation that listens to students, through discussion groups and other opportunities, the OIA will continue to try to be as accessible – and as kind – as it can.

The OIA has changed beyond recognition from the tiny office feeling its way that I joined back in 2019. It’s been an extraordinary privilege to have led it, with Ben Elger our excellent Chief Executive, through the last five, challenging, turbulent and exciting years.

I’m so thankful to have been part of such an exceptional team and to many amazing colleagues for making it such a joy to work there. I leave it in the safe hands of Ben and Helen Megarry, who will bring fresh insights as well as her considerable ombuds experience.

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