Complaints cut in half by early action

May 31, 2002

Nottingham Trent University has cut its student complaints by 50 per cent with a project designed to nip problems in the bud.

As students become fee-paying customers, universities fear litigation. Lis Child, student liaison manager at NTU, said a new way of handling problems had prevented a significant proportion escalating into formal complaints.

The project, part of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's good management practice programme, has been so successful that the university plans to train 100 members of staff in the strategy.

Ms Child said:"Formal complaints can become very protracted, not to mention expensive, and are distressing for the students and members of staff involved."

She said that knowing when a niggling concern was likely to turn into a full complaint was half the battle.

Sally Olohan, head of student support services, said training was offered to academic and administrative staff to help them deal with disgruntled students.

She said small things often made a big difference - knowing when to say sorry, for instance. But she added: "This is a real dilemma because good customer care guidelines usually recommend saying sorry, but legally this can be an admission of liability and lawyers usually advise against it."

Other tips include making an effort to listen to students and to acknowledge their grievance even if they do not really have a case against the university.

"Often we advise staff to take the students somewhere quiet and sit down to try to calm the situation down," Ms Olohan said. "We advise staff about body language and anger management techniques and try to encourage them to ask for help from a more experienced member of staff."

A blame culture was never helpful, Ms Olohan said, and staff were encouraged to see student complaints and feedback as a valuable resource for improving the quality of the student experience.

The most common complaints were to do with misunderstandings, often because communication had not been explicit or because literature, including university prospectuses, were treated by institutions like holiday brochures rather than legally binding contracts.

"Probably the most important lesson is to ask students what they want when dealing with a complaint," Ms Olohan said. "And never be patronising or judgemental. Try to deal with all members of the university with the same level of dignity."

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