The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the experience of virtually every student in HE across all providers. Many students will feel that the measures taken by their provider in response to the initial crisis and for their next period of study have been reasonable in the circumstances. Other students may feel that they have been more severely impacted. Providers may want to depart from their usual processes so that they can resolve those students’ concerns as quickly as possible, in an efficient and consistent way.
We hope that this note will provide some helpful suggestions about things to consider when handling students’ concerns.
- It can be appropriate for students to explore their concerns locally with the school or department which is delivering the service in question. It may be helpful to encourage students to come together in course and/or year groups and to appoint a student to represent their group. Where possible, encourage the students’ union or other student representative body to coordinate, or at least to support and advise the representatives.
- It is important to keep communication channels open. Listen to what the students and their representatives are saying and invite their participation in designing solutions. Be as open as possible about how you are dealing with the students’ concerns and explain why you are taking the approach you are taking. Be honest if you are not yet certain what will happen; try to set out possible courses of action and the timeframes for making decisions. Let the students know if you think their expectations are unreasonable, and explain why.
- Provide staff who are responding to students’ concerns and questions with advice and guidance about whole-provider policies and approaches and be clear about where there is localised discretion. It is important that all staff recognise when they are unable to resolve an issue, so that students’ complaints do not become stuck at the informal stage.
- Think about students who may not be able to submit their complaint in the usual way, or who may need help to make their complaint. Some students may have had limited online access during lockdown. Some students who have been shielding, or caring for someone who is shielding, may not yet feel able to return to public spaces where access may be easier. Some disabled students may not be able to access other avenues for support to help them complete online forms at this time. You may need to provide this support within your complaints handling function, as a reasonable adjustment to the complaints process. It is good practice to be flexible in accepting complaints which are made in non-standard formats.
- Make sure that students know how to raise concerns and which process they need to follow. Explain proactively to students what process to follow if they believe that the coronavirus has had an impact on their academic performance, and if they need to do something instead of, or as well as making a complaint. Highlight processes for seeking extensions to deadlines, for submitting requests for additional consideration (claims for mitigation or extenuation), or for making an academic appeal. Students who try to raise their concerns through the wrong process or department should be signposted to the correct process. It is important that all staff who receive communications from students know where to direct them.
Adapting the complaints process
- It may be reasonable to depart from the three-stage complaints process which is set out in our Good Practice Framework: handling complaints and academic appeals. Streamlining the process can minimise potential delays and reduce the impact on your resources.
You might decide to
- allow students to complain formally without requiring them to first try to resolve the matter locally
- delegate responsibility for decision-making to a wider range of staff than usual
- hold hearings virtually, or replace hearings with additional opportunities to make written statements
- ask students with similar complaints to participate in a group discussion to address their concerns
- issue a Completion of Procedures letter once the complaint has been made and answered fully, without a final internal review stage.
It is important to explain to students that a different process is being followed, and to ensure that the alternative process is still compatible with the core principles of the Good Practice Framework: Accessibility, Clarity, Proportionality, Timeliness, Fairness, Independence, Confidentiality and Improving the student experience. Steps should also be taken to ensure a fair and consistent response to students across the provider.
- Where you are working in partnership to provide a qualification to students, discuss any changes made to complaints and appeals processes with your delivering/awarding partner organisations and ensure that these are clearly communicated to students, wherever they are studying.
- Consider setting a specific deadline to encourage students to bring their complaints quickly. This would give you the option of dealing with them together. The deadline needs to be flexible so that students who are unable to meet it are not disadvantaged.
- Complaints which are made about the impact of the coronavirus are likely to have common elements. Consider adapting your internal complaint form so that it guides students to provide the key information you are likely to need to considered coronavirus-related:
- What course is the student on and what stage are they at?
- What has this student missed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (teaching, supervision, placement opportunities, facilities, services)?
- What has been put in place (or is planned) to minimise the impact on this student?
- How has the disruption affected this student, taking into account the plans to minimise the impact?
- What remedy is this student asking for?
- Consider your approach to the evidence which students are expected to submit in support of their complaint. It is often difficult for parties to a complaint to be able to prove an absence of something. For example, students may have difficulty providing evidence confirming that they had poor broadband service, or any independent corroboration of the time spent caring for dependants. Access to medical services has been limited in many areas. It may be reasonable to accept students’ statements about their individual circumstances at face value.
- Good records are key to the successful resolution of complaints. Try to collate information centrally and as soon as possible about what learning opportunities have been affected by the coronavirus. A centralised record will help you to assess how students were affected, and will help decision-makers to be consistent about remedial action. The records could include information about which in-person classes were cancelled, what the content would have been, which were delivered in an alternative format, whether and what learning materials were available on the VLE. Make sure that where decisions about what can be offered to students have been based on guidance from professional bodies and regulators, a copy of this guidance is kept. It is good practice to share this guidance with students.
- A centralised record of when and how access to other facilities and services was affected will also be helpful. For example, information about the availability of online access to library resources or welfare services; information that was made available to students in provider-managed accommodation; information that was made available to students about access to sporting facilities, careers services etc.
- Keep a record of any steps you take to ensure students are not disadvantaged academically, for example, changing assessment methods, extending deadlines or changing the weighting of different module elements, the introduction of a “no detriment” policy. Communicating proactively to students about what you are doing and what you are planning to do can set minds at rest and reduce the numbers of formal complaints made.
- Consider whether the remedial action you are taking may be less successful for some students than others, eg students on placements, students participating in overseas study, apprentices, disabled students, students affected by mental health issues, students with poor access to IT, part-time students, international students, commuter students etc. Keep a record of steps you have taken to support those students who have been particularly affected.
- Students may also be involved in other formal processes, for example, academic appeals, academic misconduct, other disciplinary processes or fitness to practice processes. It may be appropriate to apply a flexible approach to these procedures in the same way, to ensure that students are not detrimentally affected by any shortage of resource. Providers must be mindful of a student’s right to a fair hearing. While students should usually be expected to prioritise participation in such processes, it will be appropriate to consider the other demands on students at this time. It may be necessary to delay some hearings for example, if a student’s broadband connection is not good enough to enable full participation in a virtual meeting. While the membership of most panels can be flexible, the requirements of some professional bodies and regulators for fitness to practice hearings may not be changed.
- It is important to take a flexible approach to students asking about intermission or deferral, a change to their full/part-time registration, or transfer to a different provider. Make sure that students are signposted to a clear route of complaint or appeal, if their request to make changes to their registration status is refused.
It is not in anyone’s interests for providers to become overwhelmed trying to respond to individual students’ complaints. Please contact our team (firstname.lastname@example.org) so that we can discuss with you how best to manage the complaints if it becomes clear that you are not going to be able to reach agreement with large numbers of students.