When industrial action takes place within an HE provider, it is possible that a large number of students may wish to raise very similar concerns. 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, which draws on our experience of complaints about industrial action in 2018, will provide some helpful suggestions about things to consider when handling complaints.
- Good records are key to the successful resolution of complaints. Try to collate information about what learning opportunities have been affected by the industrial action, centrally and as soon as possible. A centralised record will help you to assess which students were most severely affected, and will help decision-makers to be consistent about remedial action. The records could include information about which classes were cancelled, what the content would have been, which were rescheduled, whether and what learning materials were available on the VLE, whether feedback to students was delayed, and whether any particular sub-set of a cohort was affected more than another.
- 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. Communicating proactively to students about what will be done can set minds at rest and reduce the numbers of formal complaints made.
- When analysing the impact of the industrial action, it may be helpful to focus on those areas that suffered the greatest disruption, the courses which are nearing completion or which are of the shortest duration, or the courses that have the greatest number of students enrolled. It may be possible to apply the principles established in these circumstances, to the areas which suffered less disruption. Consider what could not be delivered, and how this relates to the course learning outcomes. Establish what provision can be replaced, and identify anything that cannot now be delivered. Start thinking about possible remedies, and how they might be implemented.
- Consider whether the remedial action may be less successful for some students than others, e.g. disabled students, students affected by mental health issues, part-time students, international students, commuter students etc. Record your consideration of these factors.
- Tell students explicitly whether and how the learning opportunities will be replaced. Let students know who to contact if they have a good reason why the replacement activity will not meet their needs. Keep records of emails and announcements.
- 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.
- 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 to coordinate, or at least to support and advise the representatives.
- Keep the communication channels open. Listen to what the students and their representatives are saying. 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. Let the students know if you think their expectations are unreasonable, and explain why.
- Explain proactively to students what process to follow if they believe that the industrial action has had an impact on their academic performance, and if they need to do something more than make a complaint. Highlight processes for seeking extensions to deadlines, for submitting claims for mitigation or extenuation, or for making an academic appeal.
- Consider adapting your internal complaint form so that it draws out the key points of the complaint:
- What course is the student on and what stage are they at?
- What has this student missed as a result of the industrial action (teaching, supervision, 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 streamlining your complaints procedure to minimise potential delays, and reduce the demand on your resources. It might be helpful to deal with similar complaints in batches. It might be proportionate to depart from the usual three-stage process (informal stage, formal stage and review stage). Explain to students why you are not following your usual processes, and keep good records.
- Consider issuing a Completion of Procedures Letter as soon as it becomes clear that you are not going to be able to reach agreement with the student/s.
- 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.
If you have any questions about this note, please contact us on 0118 989 5813 or email email@example.com.