Healthy organisations need complaints!

Blog for members
10 May 2017
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 On Monday 8 May I attended the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) Annual Open Meeting where Higher Education staff were given the opportunity to quiz senior OIA staff and hear from five students about their experiences in student unions and working with the OIA.  What struck me about the event was how constructive and positive the dialogue was and that the open communication of the OIA appears to have enabled the sector to learn from mistakes and has enabled the OIA to improve their procedures.  The winners are students; they benefit from continually improved practice in their home institutions (perhaps why fewer students are complaining to the OIA) but have an independent body to appeal to, if this becomes necessary. This is probably why Dame Suzi Leather, Chair of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator believes that 'healthy organisations need complaints’.

The OIA deals with student complaints in Higher Education in England and Wales.  (Students in Scotland refer to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) and students in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman).   What is unique about the OIA as a sector body is that they review individual complaints by students. They have no regulatory powers over providers and cannot punish or fine them but can recommend that institutions amend their practices or policies and, where necessary, offer compensation to students.

The 2016 Annual report shows that international students remain over-represented in the number of complaints. This may be partly explained by the fact that non-EU students pay higher tuition fees and also as so many study at postgraduate level and may have given up work to come to the UK.  For international students, there is often more at stake if things go wrong.  A number of example cases published by the OIA inform us about international students.  You can read the summary and the full report on the OIA website. Members may be interested in the international student cases on page 11 and page 21.

At the Annual Open Meeting on 8 May, the OIA noted the following learning points in relation to international student cases:

  • The importance of informing students at the start of their studies in the UK about institutional complaints procedures. This is particularly important for students arriving late who miss the formal induction process (and often get off to a difficult start which can lead to later problems).
  • The importance of careful and thorough checking on reasons for absences before reporting Tier 4 students to the Home Office for non-attendance.
  • The need to clarify the (perhaps culturally unfamiliar) concept of ‘mitigating circumstances’ and encouraging international students to seek support as early as possible in the academic year to avoid problems worsening. It was suggested that Student Unions could have an important role to play in partnership with institutions.
  • All students should be encouraged to get support on complaints, problems or appeals from their student union representatives who are ‘well-informed and informal', familiar with internal procedures and are most often in a much better position to support students than external solicitors.

Independent Adjudicator and Dominic Scott, Chief Executive of the OIA, Judy Clements spoke about the difficulty of  the OIA in making recommendations for international students to resit exams or repeat their courses as many are unable to do so due to Tier 4 visa restrictions.  For many students, however, the most positive outcome of submitting a complaint is to obtain the degree that they came to the UK to obtain.  All the more reason for institutions to continue to strive to improve procedures and avoid the need for students to resort to the OIA.

Members can learn more from OIA caseworkers who are running a workshop on the first day of the UKCISA annual conference at the University of Exeter in June (but hurry - places are filling up fast!).

Julie Allen 10 May 2017

Director of Policy and Services, UKCISA