The NUS published a report this month to unearth the failings of university complaints procedures. 45 student unions were quizzed and a focus group and survey was set up to research the problems. The findings will not sit well with university administrators. Only 14% of students thought complaints were dealt with fairly, with many arguing that the university staff who dealt with complaints would naturally side with the institution.
Problems were exacerbated by universities regularly taking over a year, sometimes up to two, to deal with complaints. The busy schedules of the senior academics who deal with student complaints were largely blamed, however the NUS has demanded a three month limit from the time a complaint is logged. It was further found that a failure to centrally report internal complaints led to difficulties in analysing cross university trends and establishing the main cause for student complaints.
These issues were only made worse by the fact that many students say there is “increasing pressure on university legal departments not to say sorry, when in some cases this is all it would take”. 75% of students fear a complaint may jeopardise their relationship with tutors or their academic career. On the whole, argues NUS vice-president, Aaron Porter, universities have “poor customer complaints procedures”.
However, the NUS did find some positives, and suggested certain improvements. One such suggestion is for a campus ombudsman. Used widely in the US, these are often retired professors or lawyers who can resolve problems informally and independently of the university. They further suggested a national procedure for universities to follow, which would standardise the different procedures currently in place.
‘75% of students fear a complaint may jeopardise their relationship with tutors or their academic career’
Still, some have claimed these suggestions are insufficient. Education lawyer, Gary Attle, argues that ombudsmen merely create a new and surplus level of bureaucracy, while a standardised complaints procedure is a waste of time. Every university is different and knows best how to serve its specific students’ needs, he argues.
The NUS did point out that many universities had recently reviewed their complaints procedures, possibly a result of updated guidance from the higher education watchdog the Quality Assurance Agency. Nonetheless, not all universities have been suitably precipitous in making the relevant changes, and, though less common, there is still evidence “of a failure by universities to keep to their own rules, breaches of natural justice and insensitive handling”, according to Rob Behrens of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
Ultimately, changes need to be made. Yet it is hard to learn from mistakes when, in the vast majority of cases, students who win against their university are subject to a gagging order.