Universities have a complaints problem. Here’s how to fix it

Jim Dickinson reviews the annual report of England and Wales' student complaints body, and concludes that structural change is needed to build confidence in the decisions made by universities when things go wrong

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When it comes to student complaints in higher education, we have a major problem.

You can tell – because the national body (at least in England and Wales) responsible for overseeing complaints in the sector says that pressures on students might be making it more of a challenge for some to pursue their complaints – and adds those working in complaints and appeals at providers are under considerable pressure themselves, and in some cases this is leading to delays.

In 2021, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE) closed 2,654 complaints, an increase of 2 percent from 2020 (2,597). Although this was its highest ever number of closures in a year, it failed to meet its key performance indicator (KPI) of closing 75 percent of complaints within six months of receipt, closing 69 percent within that timeframe. Given that that six months is on top of however long it took students get their “completion of procedures” letter, it’s a good job that reviewing complaints in a timely way remains a “key focus”.

Softly softly

The genius of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE) used to be its approach of deploying iron fists in velvet gloves, enabling it to gently carry the sector along with its incremental improvements to complaints handling. But diminishing returns over improvements to process on academic appeals, the rise of so-called “consumer” complaints and the increase in problematic handling of harassment and sexual misconduct complaints mean that without major structural change, it’s almost certain that the efficacy of the OIA’s “softly, softly” approach is now on the wane.

We should first consider the traditional bulk of the OIA’s casework – the academic appeal. Too often, students end up making complaints about the quality of teaching and support once it has manifested in a bad mark or a fail – the one thing that a student can’t reasonably (or legally) complain about. There will always be students who fall at the final hurdle and grasp at process straws – but it’s now clear that there are plenty more that should have raised and had resolved concerns earlier if only they’d had the confidence or knowledge to do so. That we lack a national plan to cause that to happen is a national scandal.

We should next think about the things that we don’t know. Statistics gathered by the OIA only tell us about the number of “completion of procedures” letters it sees from providers, its EDI stats only tell us limited things about who then forward them to the OIA, and we know almost nothing about the prevalence of complaints by type within higher education providers. When 27 percent of students say they regret their choice of provider, course or both, and 42 percent of students say their experience was worse than they expected, that’s a major gap in knowledge that is masked by the way the student finance system traps the UK’s students into low drop-out rates.

You can’t get the service nowadays

Elsewhere on the site, the OIA’s Felicity Mitchell (Independent Adjudicator) and Ben Elger (Chief Executive) describe one noticeable trend as the rise in the number of complaints about what it categorises as “service issues” – including concerns about teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities. What they don’t say is that the resolution to almost all of these cases is only applied for those brave enough to sign the complaint and see it through to the very end – building in deliberate incentives for providers to apply “deal or no deal” plus no-guilt/NDA principles rather than admitting a fault and resolving collectively and early. That prevents institutional learning, discriminates against disabled students, and obviously needs to change.

Mitchell and Elger do note that group complaints procedures in cases like this can be significantly easier than having to consider each student’s complaint individually, especially where they have a well-organised representative. But what happens if they don’t have a “well-organised representative”? Why does the relative chance of a student’s complaint succeeding depend on a brave student volunteer with time, determination and an underlying assumption that their institution probably hates them for the work they’re doing?

In the OIA’s Good Practice Framework, providers are encouraged to allocate a request for a review of an initial decision about a complaint to a designated member of staff who has not been involved at any previous stage. That might make sense where a complaint is individual – but if a complaint (for example) involves “service issues” faced by half of a provider’s graduating cohort, even if the staff member making the call to not uphold does so for the right reasons, the students making the complaint are never going to believe that the staff member acted primarily in anything other than the interests of their institution.

And when it comes to small or specialist providers, we’ve noted before the impossibility of building trust among students that their complaints will be handled with the kind of fairness and independence required both by natural justice principles and the OIA’s GPF. I’ve rarely heard anyone suggest that the long tail of drama schools, religious colleges and single subject area centres on the OfS register need anything other than a complaints layer between them and the OIA – but it’s hardly as if they’re going to make that happen all on their own.

What if acting out works?

Not all of the problems concern collective, “service” complaints. When it comes to harassment and sexual misconduct, plenty of staff I speak to bemoan aspects of #MeToo and BLM culture, insofar as they deliberately disregard the kind of due process that formal complaints and the OIA are based around. But is it any wonder?

As this cracking interview with influential political theorist Wendy Brown explains, #MeToo “did in two years what previous generations of feminists could not pull off” and in a single summer Black Lives Matter pushed racism into the centre of political conversation and “transformed the consciousness of a generation”. Even with a ministerial NDA pledge and a “statement of expectations”, for students angry about their treatment, how would a marketised culture of institutional defensiveness ever be able to address the David v Goliath imbalances that kick in when harassment happens?

The good news is that it’s not so long ago that the government shared some of these concerns – and wanted the national body to help higher education providers to resolve complaints at the earliest possible stage. After all, a lengthy process “benefits no-one”, can “undermine the relationship” between the student and their institution and “consumes resource from the student and the institution”. That’s why back in 2011’s “Students at the Heart of the System”, along with recommending the publication of summary decisions and a comply-or-explain “Good Practice Framework”, the government invited the OIA to consider whether each higher education institution could provide access to their own campus ombudsperson.

All aboad the Ombudsbus

The idea in OIA’s “Pathway 3”, drawing on work from across Europe, was that every higher education institution should provide a means to resolve complaints through an impartial ombuds service that would give students a quicker and simpler route to resolution. At the time, NUS noted the importance of a campus ombuds being independent – the context here being “reported scepticism about independence and lack of trust” where those handling complaints sit within and report into university structures, reflecting OIA’s own research that complainants saw independence as crucial in earning trust.

On our recent SUs study tour to Scandinavia, we saw various models delivering just this. At the University of Copenhagen, Bo Gad Køhlert, the university’s own campus ombuds, offers formal advice to students about their rights, oversees the consistent application of reasonable adjustments and extenuating circumstances, and intervenes when things go wrong. They’re appointed jointly by students and the university, trusted by the SU to take decisions without fear or favour, and their annual reports are highly influential in driving change within schools and faculties.

In Norway in 2017, the national parliament asked the government to change the law to require all higher education institutions to establish a student ombuds, either alone or, in the case of smaller providers, in cooperation with other institutions. A few years later at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Nina Sofie Lem Samuelsen provides information to students on their rights, courses and training to SU reps and advisors that take on student casework, and annual reports that have recommend changes to procedures surrounding student safety, harassment and sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile over at the University of Stavanger, Maren Anne Kvaløy poses a series of questions to students that encourage reflection that is neither about reflexive emotional response nor about only considering complaints once a crisis crops up. Do you experience (or recognise) bullying or harassment? Is there poor indoor climate in the reading room? Have you received a letter from the university you do not understand the contents of? Are you fit to become a teacher or nurse? Can you complain about a decision?

We don’t need roads

Back in 2012, an unholy alliance of a sector that always wants to resist regulation and SUs that (mistakenly) thought their role would be undermined by campus ombuds put paid to the idea in England. But a decade on, as Wales prepares to pilot new legislation through the Senedd and as England’s OfS considers how students’ rights might be promoted, upheld and enforced, it’s time to revisit the idea.

As well as access to independent support in the event of a complaint or appeal and a national system of professional registration for academic staff (and front facing professional services staff), access to a refined version of a campus ombuds should be guaranteed for students everywhere, with their role in resolution put on a statutory footing. They should be able to cause redress for all students impacted by an issue, require the kind of “learning” from complaints that OIA craves, gather and publish stats on complaints within universities, and be networked nationally by the OIA – which would remain both an appeal body of last resort, and be given new powers to monitor both complaints and the rights, redress and confidence “climate” within higher education providers.

SUs could focus on both individual advocacy and support rather than process, and OfS would have assistance in determining whether the random “notifications” it gets about individual issues are something it should follow up as a systemic issue in a provider. Ombuds would also play a role in ensuring that students were getting what they were promised, and build trust in systems and structures that, unless we’re careful, students will continue to bypass in the name of justice.

In short, their introduction would represent an inexpensive way to make higher education in England and Wales better for everyone, drive improvements to prevention and process, and build trust in the decisions that its providers make when perceived injustices occur. They could even play a role in positively resolving “free speech” complaints before they reach OfS’ new tsar. Everyone would win.

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