Learning from Student Complaints

Lisa Baker MAUA
Deputy University Secretary
University of Lincoln

It is part and parcel of the human condition that we generally do not welcome, or respond well to, complaints. We don’t like them, they make us feel uncomfortable and wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all just get along nicely and not think about complaints or complaining? Life isn’t like that though, and student complaints are a normal element of work in the higher education sector. Although the Office of the Independent Adjudicator has seen a slight decline in complaints it has received from a peak in 2014 of 2040 to 1635 in 2017 , in my own experience student complaints have become increasingly complex and multi-faceted and the time taken to manage and resolve them can inevitably creep beyond prescribed time limits. While sometimes a complaint might be unavoidable (and feel personal) we can only control how we respond and react to them.

Firstly, however, we need to set the boundary between formal and informal complaints. In my definition, informal complaints are those which can often be resolved quickly and with little or no upwards escalation. Formal complaints, however, are on a different footing. At the University of Lincoln, a student complaint becomes formal when a student submits the requisite pro-forma. This is important because it helps students to articulate their concerns in a less ‘freestyle’ way (we have, in the past, received reams and reams of paper from which it has been almost impossible to locate the substance of their issues) and to tell us, up front, what they would like as a resolution. At Lincoln the management of formal student complaints resides in Secretariat and Student Complaint Officers will receive a complaint and take it forward through the entirety of the complaints process, acting as a point of contact for both the student and the staff undertaking the investigation and providing expert advice and guidance around process. This model works well because, as guardians of the process, Student Complaint Officers can ensure that the time limits are adhered to – and that the student is kept informed if this is not going to be possible (and students have to accept that sometimes matters are complex and, if they are to be considered properly, it might take some additional time).
The investigation of a formal complaint will lead to an outcome report (on another template form) which is forwarded to the student together with any documentation gathered by the investigator as part of the process. The learning from complaints is as important as the outcome. Lincoln’s report template includes a section (also visible to the student) which asks investigators to reflect on the complaint and identify any elements of good practice or areas for improvement that could be shared institutionally.

The case that precipitated the addition of the reflection section on the report template concerned a postgraduate research student. The student was unhappy with their supervisory team and the supervisors did not provide adequate assistance to the student who was ultimately withdrawn, unilaterally, for lack of engagement. The case was partially upheld through the Student Complaints Procedure; the School could 

have handled the matter better but it was entitled to withdraw the student for attendance reasons. The student submitted a complaint to the OIA which was upheld. The consequences of this case prompted a high level review to capture lessons learned. This led to a clarification around withdrawal processes and changes being made to PGR supervisory training. It also led to the change to the management of complaint outcomes to ensure that institutional learning can be captured and disseminated.

In a second case, a student submitted a formal complaint after receiving what they perceived to be inadequate feedback on an assignment. The student felt that they had been awarded a lower mark than their peers and that this was because the marker was prejudiced and biased against them. On the feedback form the identity of the marker had not been given and in all of student’s previous work this had always been provided. For the student, this raised queries about the marking procedure. On being informed of the identity of the marker the student realised that they had attended a coaching session with the marker in which that person had reviewed the draft assignment and provided feedback on areas for improvement. The student considered that the marker had not fully read the final version of the assignment having read an earlier draft. In the student’s opinion, the feedback for the assignment in question was short and critical and the student felt that this was because the marker had been prejudiced having previously read the assignment.

In this case the complainant met with the Head of School. It was explained that assignments were marked anonymously by two markers who were not provided with the names or ID numbers of the students. The Head agreed that there should be consistency in feedback across all modules and that marking criteria should have been included with the module handbook.

The Head of School subsequently discussed the outcome of the case at their College Management Team (which all Heads of School within a College attend). As a result, all programme leaders and module co-ordinators were provided with additional guidance around feedback and students’ expectations around its content. All programme leaders were asked to ensure that handbooks relating to their courses included detailed information on marking criteria.

This reflection on process was recorded on the Head of School complaint investigation report form which meant that Secretariat folded the issue of the need for good feedback and available marking criteria into training with other Heads of School and other small group training sessions.

Annual student complaint reports are submitted to the University’s Academic Board, College Academic Boards and the Board of Governors. As well as statistics and trends, reports include anonymised case studies and details of any good practice or process improvements.

Nobody gets it right 100% of the time and complaints are an almost inevitable part of the University experience. Embracing complaints and striving to learn from them and make processes, procedures and the student experience better as a result is the best we can do. So, the next time a student complaints lands on your desk, see it as an opportunity to make a real difference.

[1] OIA Annual Report 2017 http://www.oiahe.org.uk/media/121920/oia-annual-report-2017.pdf

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