There have been events in the last few years that have brought significant disruption to the higher education sector. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been profound, and there has also been disruption from industrial action. For some students this may have had a cumulative impact. 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 about disruption.
- It’s important that students know how to raise concerns and who with. 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 groups based on their course and/or year and to appoint a student to represent their group. Where possible, support the students’ union or other student representative body to coordinate, or at least to help 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 not reasonable, 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 local 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, or flexibility with deadlines. It can be more difficult for some students, for example some disabled students, to access support and advice. You may need to provide additional 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.
- Some students may need other support or advice during the complaints process, for example, to help them make decisions about their academic progression and accommodation. Appropriate sources of support and advice should be clearly signposted, including welfare services and hardship funding.
- 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 disruption 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
- If you receive a significant number of complaints or academic appeals, 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.
- 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.
- Some students might want to complain about the cumulative impact on their studies of disruption, for example if they have experienced disruption caused by the pandemic and by industrial action. Although it’s reasonable to expect students to complain promptly, the overall impact on them might not be obvious until later in their studies. In those circumstances, it may be fair to consider complaints about events that might otherwise be out of time.
- Complaints that are made about the impact of significant disruption 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 consider those complaints:
- What course is the student on and what stage are they at?
- What has this student missed as a result of the disruption (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, and have the plans to minimise the impact worked effectively for this student?
- 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, especially GP appointments, can be difficult. It may be reasonable to accept students’ statements about their individual circumstances at face value. Our Good Practice Framework: Requests for additional consideration section says that providers should consider each case on its individual facts, and the process should be flexible enough to allow for different evidence if the student is finding it difficult to get the supporting evidence normally required.
- 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 disruption. 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 any classes that were cancelled, what the content would have been, whether they 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 is also 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.
- When analysing the impact of the disruption, it may be helpful to focus on those areas that were most affected, the courses that are nearing completion or that are of the shortest duration, or the courses where making up for what has been missed might be more challenging. It may be possible to apply the principles established in these circumstances, to the areas that suffered less disruption. Consider what could not be delivered, and how this relates to the course learning outcomes. What provision can be replaced, and what can’t now be delivered? How might any shortfall be remedied?
- Keep records of any guidance you publish for students and 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, or having a “no detriment” or “safety net” 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 practise 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 in times of significant disruption. 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 practise hearings cannot 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.
- If a large number of students complain there is a risk that the provider’s resources are overwhelmed. If it becomes clear that you are not going to be able to reach agreement with the students, we may be able to help by discussing with you how best to manage the complaints. Please contact our team at email@example.com.
Other industrial action
- Students may also be affected by industrial action in other sectors. Those with children or other caring responsibilities may need to take time away from their studies because of industrial action in schools or the health service. Students may also be affected by action in the transport network. Industrial action may also affect students in placement settings. Providers should give careful consideration to the impact industrial action is having or may have on their students and take steps to try to minimise this for example by making arrangements to make up for placement learning that may have been missed, drawing students’ attention to sources of support, and giving them information about how to ask for an extension of time for handing in assessments.
If you are a provider experiencing a high volume of complaints arising from disruption and if you are unlikely to reach agreement with large numbers of students, please contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) as we may be able to help by discussing with you how best to manage the complaints.