OIA (almost) bans NDAs for all complaints – not just those that concern sexual misconduct

When handling complaints, providers have a duty to act fairly - and that means that decision-making should both be unbiased and, importantly, should be seen to be unbiased.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That’s a central plank of a new revision of the main part of the Good Practice Framework – the document that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE) uses to set out its expectations on provider handling of complaints and academic appeals.

The GPF isn’t binding – but given it is used to guide OIA’s decisions, and given hardly anyone ever refuses to implement OIA recommendations, the content is as close to a set of “soft” student rights (both on process and the issues that students complain about) as it gets.

I’m just not sure the new and expanded section on “bias” really cuts it.

In small providers, or where there are processes that involve a department investigating an issue internally (rather than the “central university” doing the heavy lifting) it will almost certainly be difficult to meet the principle in a way that gives students confidence that ranks won’t close, and that they’ll not be targeted for retributions.

It also says that it is a “fundamental principle” of fairness that “no-one should be the judge of their own actions”. The problem is that the key it says to ensure that is investigators and decision-makers not having been involved previously in the matters being considered in a complaint or appeal – but that ignores the pressures on provider staff to not deliver a result that would cause a major financial or reputational problem for the provider, especially in the case of a large group complaint.

Those universities that have been holding out on signing that NDAs pledge – and everyone else that might have been hoping they can maintain the idea that NDAs are only to be ruled out for sexual misconduct complaints – won’t be thrilled to learn that a new line says it is “not good practice” (OIA’s equivalent of not allowed) to ask a student to sign a confidentiality agreement or non-disclosure agreement as a part of an offer to settle or resolve any complaint. There’s new material on communicating the outcomes of complaints about other students and staff too.

A significantly expanded section on complaints about other students or staff is interesting, partly because it doesn’t really reference any of the jurisdiction issues where a partner is involved – years abroad, franchise colleges, placements and even SU clubs and societies. UUK has been neatly sidestepping the legal complexity there too – someone will need to pick it up at some point.

It also doesn’t reference OfS’ Statement of Expectations on such matters – which is shortly to become formal regulation. Similarly there’s no mention of OfS’ new B Conditions on quality – which set out what students ought to be able to universally expect. Of course, OIA has to operate across England and Wales, and in FE in Wales too – but this disconnect between universal minimums set out by the regulator and the guidance issued by the complaints adjudicator only adds to the general sense of chaos surrounding the multiple bodies acting in the student interest that a student might contact – and that’s before OfS starts becoming a complaints body of its own in the coming year via the Free Speech Bill. Forthcoming (and long overdue) research from OfS on students and their confidence around complaints may well provide an agenda for change in this area.

There’s a little push on learning form complaints in here – including the idea that providers should consider not only the complaints and appeals that have been received, but where they have not been received, and any groups of students who are not using the processes. It’s a shame not to see a push around analysis of the characteristics of those accused of conduct issues or things relating to academic misconduct.

Elsewhere there’s lots of helpful wording changes, a focus on flexibility and empathy needing often to trump jobsworth rigidity, and a specific line on some complaints or appeals needing a provider to take “particularly swift action” – for example in cases where delay may cause significant difficulties regarding a student’s visa status. And there’s an expanded section on how providers ought to be learning from complaints that goes a lot further than most of the perfunctory annual reports I’ve seen in this space over the years – one for OfS and CETR to pick up in due course, arguably.

One response to “OIA (almost) bans NDAs for all complaints – not just those that concern sexual misconduct

  1. NDA’s have been used to silence extensively for years, so some open honesty might go a very long way in rebuilding much of the lost trust in universities as both employers and places of learning.

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