From mark to blemish

February 5, 1999

Excellence in public service won Sunderland University one of only two Cabinet Office "Charter Mark" awards given to the higher education sector in 1997. Sunderland's award stands until 2000, but the university has just scrapped the name of its much-heralded student "Charter Office". Why?

One of the key "principles of public service delivery", required by the Cabinet Office inspectors before awarding a Charter Mark, is that an organisation must have "well-publicised and easy-to-use complaints procedures".

But in the recently published research report, Complaints in Crisis, by the National Postgraduate Committee, Sunderland's procedures for dealing with complaints were condemned as "not good".

Students have had problems locating copies of the university's published complaints procedures, the students' union complained to the NPC. Despite 15,000 students registered at Sunderland, the union reported that the formal complaints procedures had been used just three times because students did not know how to complain formally. One Sunderland student union leader said that the celebrated Charter Office, which handles all student complaints, actually acted as a "gatekeeper", discouraging complaints. She said: "I have very little faith in the complaints procedure."

The Cabinet Office wrote to Sunderland University in November last year drawing its attention to the NPC report. Recently, the university has dropped the name of its "Charter Office". This week, Sunderland academic registrar Stuart Porteous said: "The university acknowledges that it is one of over 30 institutions referred to in the NPC report which have received some criticism for its procedures.

"Quite independently, and prior to the publication of the NPC report, the University of Sunderland embarked upon a review of those areas of its complaints procedure with which it was dissatisfied," he said.

The university hopes to have a new procedure in place by the end of the current academic year, and the Charter Office name has been scrapped as part of a rebranding of the services.

"Although the Charter Office name has been dropped," said Mr Porteous, "all of its functions will continue." He denied claims that the university would not be reapplying for the Charter Mark in 2000.

Don Staniford, the NPC project officer who wrote the NPC complaints paper, said: "If Sunderland has the best procedure that the sector has to offer I would dread to see the worst."

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