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Exclusive article by Rob Behrens, the Independent Adjudicator for higher education, on the new good practice framework

  • 12 December 2014

We are grateful to Rob Behrens, the Independent Adjudicator for higher education, for contributing this exclusive guest blog on the new good practice framework for handling complaints and appeals – which is to be published at 9am on 12th December 2014.

There has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the news that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) is working with the sector to produce a written good practice framework on handling complaints and academic appeals. The publication of the revised framework on 12 December (to take effect from autumn 2015) marks the conclusion of a high-quality, three-year iterative consultation, which elicited 200 written submissions from universities and students’ unions and saw extensive debate at conferences, seminars and coffee shops.

On the margins of this enthusiasm have been two, contrasting, lines of scepticism. Some institutions and commentators wanted to know why we hadn’t done this sooner, the suggestion being that guidance is long overdue. By contrast, a tiny number wanted to know why we were doing this at all, the suggestion being that it is not for the OIA to advise the sector: ‘My university does not need anyone to tell it what to do’ (to paraphrase the response from one institution in the latter category).

The OIA has been dealing with student complaints for ten years. Over that time we have learned a bit about the way institutions deal with those complaints. Of course institutions have longer, and broader, experience than the OIA.

It has been important to work with people who deal with complaints at institutional level and in students’ unions, and to consult widely, to make sure that the framework is clear, pragmatic and workable in the wide range of universities and colleges in England and Wales. This has meant the framework has come a little later but also means it is better informed. It also means that it is ready at a time of ever-increasing pressure on universities to demonstrate that they have strong complaints and appeals handling processes in place.

Every complaint or academic appeal that lands in the inbox of an OIA case-handler has already gone through exhaustive consideration at the student’s university or college. The vast majority are dealt with to the student’s satisfaction, thanks in no small part to the expertise and sensitive handling of staff in the university and students’ union and to clear, common sense written procedures.

The framework sets out the key principles of good complaints and appeals handling with operational guidance. The framework is not a highway code telling a university it must obey certain traffic signals and laws. No one is telling anyone what to do. The complaints the OIA finds Not Justified are by and large where an institution can show that it looked at an issue in line with its regulations, kept the student involved and informed, and made a reasonable decision in an acceptable timeframe based on the circumstances of the case.

Then there are the cases where, in effect, something has gone wrong and no one has intervened early enough, or successfully, to put matters right. Among these cases – around 20-25 per cent of those that come to the OIA – some common themes emerge: inconsistency; delay; lack of communication; and uncertainty about how to apply the institution’s procedures.

Complaints handling gets less attention (and less money) than impressive marketing, world-beating research, inspired teaching, glorious campuses and heated political debate about funding or social mobility. Yet, as a point of policy, good complaints and appeals handling must be in place as universities recruit more students, new providers enter the market and regulators such as the Competition and Markets Authority look at the responsibility of students under consumer protection legislation.

Every complaint and appeal is important to the student and the lecturers, other staff and other students involved in a case. That is why the people who deal with complaints asked for more guidance in the two consultations that led to the publication of a good practice framework, and that is why the OIA will not be dissuaded from its dual role of supporting good practice and reviewing complaints.

By Rob Behrens, The Independent Adjudicator and Chief Executive, Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education

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