How are university student complaints handled? Unileaks crunches the numbers

The OIA (Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education) has published its first set of complaint figures for the individual institutions who subscribe to its Scheme.

The figures show rates varying considerably with some universities having as few as one complaint per five thousand students, and some as many as one for every fifty.

British universities have had since the Higher Education Act of 2004 – almost a decade – to adapt to having an external complaints body consider student complaints.

Each institution has been sent an Annual Letter setting out their own complaints handling performance for 2011 compared with other institutions of a similar size.

The OIA has not published consolidated data and refused a request to supply them – so Unileaks UK has compiled the figures manually from the annual letters.

From Derby to Salford

Most universities are engaged with what look to be respectably low numbers of complaints. The three institutions of significant size with the lowest rates of complaint are:

  • University of Derby (22,725 students, 4 complaints),
  • University College Birmingham (10,715 students, 2 complaints) and
  • Anglia Ruskin University (19,830 students, 4 complaints).

Each of them has a complaint rate of 0.02% or around one complaint per five thousand students. These figures are remarkable achievements.

Eighteen institutions have complaint levels of over 1% with the poorest three results for universities coming from:

  • University of Salford (20,095 students, 494 complaints),
  • Newcastle University (19,575 students, 415 complaints) and
  • Queen Mary, University of London (14,025 students, 266 complaints).

Their respective complaint rates are 2.5%, 2.1%, 1.9%.

Of the 144 higher education institutions covered by the OIA’s letters, half of them have complaint rates of less than 0.25%, with more than a hundred institutions having a complaint rate of less than 0.5%.

Identifying the point at which a level of complaints is so high as to risk a material impact on the student body is probably impossible, but complaints running at the exceptionally high levels of 6 – 10 times the median rate, as exhibited by the half-dozen or so tail end institutions, are not to be taken lightly.

These complaints have been subject to formal process and they may have been made in some trepidation and with some fear of being victimised. For each complaint there may have been other students subject to similar circumstances that chose not to complain and yet others who may be aware of and feel perturbed by the situation.

High levels of complaints may be indicative of organisational or cultural problems that are adversely affecting the student experience and the potential benefit to be gained from a university education.

Noting recent scandals centred on colleges of music it is pointed out that the Royal Northern College of Music (740 students, 17 complaints) has the second highest complaint rate of 2.3% over all institutions.

Relatively high numbers of complaints may serve as a portent of disgraces to come. Frustration and anger at unresolved issues leads some to turn to the media, perhaps a case in point at Newcastle University being the story, Combined Honours students face mistreatment, from The Courier, the student newspaper for the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Once a student has exhausted the internal complaints procedure, the institution issues a Completion of Procedures Letter. This enables the student to make a complaint to the OIA.

What proportion of complaints rejected by a university result in a complaint to the OIA?

The proportions range from none to all, but using the criterion of a university having received at least 50 complaints as the basis on which to provide figures here, then the proportions of complaints pursued to the OIA range from 4.6% to 40.5%.

The three universities with the lowest complaint perpetuation rates are:

  • Newcastle University (415 complaints, 19 complaints to the OIA),
  • the University of Liverpool (261 complaints, 14 complaints to the OIA)
  • and Loughborough University (218 complaints, 13 complaints to the OIA) with respective continuation rates of 4.6%, 5.4% and 6.0%.

The three universities with the highest perpetuation rates are:

  • City University (74 complaints, 30 complaints to the OIA),
  • the University of Wolverhampton (94 complaints, 32 complaints to the OIA)
  • and Middlesex University (91 complaints, 27 complaints to the OIA) with respective perpetuation rates of 40.5%, 34.0% and 29.7%.

Complaint perpetuation rates are important as potential indicators of the effort made by institutions to resolve complaints internally, rather than allow them to default to a possible subsequent complaint to the OIA.

Perhaps more so in the past than now (with individual institutional complaint figures being published) it is easy to see that allowing some complaints to proceed to the OIA may offer an institution a benefit in avoiding internal embarrassment or conflict over recognising or correcting shortcomings on the part of the institution. Given the time taken to process a complaint at the OIA and the rate at which the OIA upholds complaints universities can be confident that any referral to the OIA is unlikely to have repercussions quickly, or at all.

The complaint perpetuation rates for Queen Mary, University of London (266 complaints, 41 complaints to the OIA) and the University of Salford (494 complaints, 36 complaints to the OIA), two of the three universities with the highest complaint rates, are 15.4% and 7.3% respectively.

The other of the three most proportionately complained about universities, Newcastle, has the already mentioned low perpetuation rate of 4.6%.

Once a complaint reaches the OIA what are the prospects of it being upheld?

This depends on both the university and the OIA. If a university is making its best efforts to resolve complaints internally then this is likely to reduce the number of complaints made with good cause reaching the OIA. The OIA’s remit and normal method of working will influence the numbers of received complaints upheld.

In its annual letters to institutions the OIA classifies closed complaints by the outcomes of not eligible, justified, partly justified, not justified, settled and a combined outcome of suspended or withdrawn. Of those complaints whose justification was determined, complaints with an outcome of justified, partly justified or not justified, 7% were found justified, 15% partly justified and 78% not justified. The number of complaints found to be either justified or partly justified was 22%.

It is suggested that a result of 22% of complaints being found to be at least partially justified is too low a figure to be the realistic outcome of a complaints system which takes due cognisance of fairness.

Other complaint systems uphold or partly uphold a significantly higher proportion of complaints. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman notes:

We upheld or partly upheld 276 of the 349 complaints we reported on. This was 79 per cent, compared to 63 per cent in 2009-10.

As with the OIA, an earlier stage complaints process filters complaints before they reach the Ombudsman.

The OIA, in its annual report for 2011 (PDF), provides its complaint statistics as percentages of the number of complaints closed: 5% justified, 11% partly justified, 56% not justified, 18% not eligible and 11% settled or resolved without the need for a formal decision.

If we suppose that all the settled or resolved cases would have otherwise had an outcome of being at least partly justified then the number of complaints found either justified or partly justified would rise from 22% to 33% of those complaints whose justification was determined.

Dissatisfaction with the way by which the OIA reaches its judgements is evidenced by its commissioned report, Student Satisfaction with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (PDF):

The OIA reviews cases, rather than conducting a fresh investigation… this is a cause of dissatisfaction, both because students are frustrated at the institutional context whereby the OIA cannot conduct its own ‘real’ investigation, and at the way that this mechanism leads many students to feel that the HEI is not being held properly to account within the review carried out by the OIA. (Page 30, footnote)

More than 40% feel that the OIA lacks independence, and almost half think that the process at the OIA was unfair. (Page 33)

… even among those with justified cases, 14% disagreed strongly with the statement that the OIA was independent. (Page 34)

A clear majority of students – almost 60% – think that the OIA is ineffective in holding the university to account for its actions. Qualitative data confirmed that this feeling is often accompanied by a perception of bias, the OIA colluding with or being manipulated by the University, and/or the OIA simply believing whatever they are told by the university without critically assessing or questioning it. (Page 36)

Dissatisfaction with the OIA has been expressed over the Internet. There exists a website that takes a highly critical stance on the OIA and reader comments from what appear to be aggrieved complainants can be found against student newspaper articles and at the website of the Times Higher Education.

This writer suggests that few students put themselves through an inevitably stressful complaints process and then follow that up with a complaint to the OIA without both evidence and a strong feeling of having been wronged. While universities might congratulate themselves on the low proportion of complaints upheld the principal explanation lies in the OIA’s Rules.

The OIA’s Scheme or Rules delimit the factors that may be considered:

6.       Review Procedures

6.4     In deciding whether a complaint is justified the Reviewer may consider whether or not the HEI properly applied its regulations and followed its procedures and whether or not a decision made by the HEI was reasonable in all the circumstances.

The Rules permit consideration of a higher education institution being reasonable but nowhere do they mention fairness. There are innumerable situations whereby a university is not obliged by contract or law to act, but where fairness demands action, and yet where a lack of such action would not be seen as unreasonable. Reasonable can be short of fair, but students expect to be treated fairly.

Being reasonable allows latitude that being fair does not. If a university is not required to be fair then a complaints process may be unfair but still deemed reasonable.

Was it unreasonable that a member of staff made disparaging and prejudicial remarks about the appellant student? Was it unreasonable that one student gained access to the crucial assessment module but another was denied access? Was it unreasonable that one student was awarded a higher classification of degree than another student in a similar position? In each of these example situations, there is a question of fairness but probably no question of a university being considered unreasonable and perhaps little question of it not having properly applied its regulations or not having followed its procedures.

How far does being reasonable go? Only in well defined legalistic situations, such as when there is a clear but unmet contractual obligation on the part of the university, need the OIA or should the OIA determine that something was not reasonable. The OIA has a statutory remit and must follow the law. It cannot lightly find a university to have been unreasonable and yet the circumstances in which a university may be unfair are manifold. A change of Rules to incorporate the phrase ‘fair and reasonable’ would transform the outcome of many a complaint but the word ‘fair’ isn’t there and that can only be deliberately so.

Universities derive significant protection from having to be judged unreasonable rather than unfair. They receive further benefit from apparent unwarranted blanket recognition of academic judgement.

The writer has been supplied with a pertinent OIA document in relation to a case that has seen some attention in online readers’ comments at the Times Higher Education.  The mark of a student’s assignment was determined in unusual and irregular circumstances in which there were grounds to suspect a conflict of interest. The circumstances were acknowledged by the OIA and all found to be reasonable. However, an inappropriate method of determining an assessment mark which is materially contrary to a university’s policies and procedures can hardly be regarded as reasonable. The university was unable to say what the mark would have been had it been determined in a proper manner but the OIA nevertheless regarded the given mark as merely a matter of academic judgement.

Academic judgement is the proper evaluation of a piece of academic work by a suitably qualified expert or professional. It is not the mark itself but a process. If the process is materially flawed by such as a conflict of interest, a failure to follow a required marking scheme or other circumstances which render the process unfair or materially irregular then it is not an appropriately derived judgement. It is not a valid academic judgement.

Possible systemic problems

The complaint figures are mixed. Many universities are generating acceptably low numbers of complaints but a significant number have complaint levels that suggest possible systemic problems that may be adversely affecting the student body.

The complaint figures have implications for the domestic university league tables relied on by prospective students and their families. Would a university award a first class degree to a student who had failed their dissertation? To find universities whose complaint records are dismal among the higher tiers of a league table would be disturbing and potentially misleading.

The OIA does not give recognition to fairness to the extent that students expect. If a university fails to rectify a wrong then the OIA provides it with reasonable support. The prospects of a complainant obtaining fairness or justice are limited. Students need a fair and balanced complaints system.

UniLeaks UK (Twitter: @UniLeaksUK)

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