Between October 1993 and April this year the Further Education Funding Council adjudicated on 17 complaints relating to the quality of education at various colleges around the country.
Grievances included charges of inaccurate student grade predictions, an unlawful expulsion, harassment and negligence by lecturing staff, the use of foul language against a student, unfair assessments of students' work, inappropriate teaching methods, course cancellations and so on.
While in some instances no evidence was found to support the complaints, in many cases the FEFC advised colleges to review their procedures for handling complaints and/or their student guidance arrangements, including expulsion policies.
Now all colleges are being encouraged by the council to review formally their arrangements for dealing with complaints from students. A discussion document is also being circulated proposing new procedures for the FEFC to adopt when handling student complaints referred to it.
The council is responsible for handling three types of complaints: those which question the quality of education; which claim a college has acted unreasonably; or which complain about course availability.
The role of the FEFC is similar to that of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment in determining complaints. It will in most cases consider the college's actions and if there is substance to the complaint refer the decision back to the college for review.
The new procedures, if adopted, will enable the council to: * clarify the complaint * check that the college's own complaints procedure has been exhausted * conduct an investigation * involve the council's inspectorate * make a draft decision and offer the college or complainant the opportunity to comment * resolve the complaint with the complainant.
Under the 1993 Charter for Further Education Colleges the rules to protect complainants are set out. Colleges should publish formal and clear complaints procedures, they should consider complaints fairly and offer an initial response within 10 working days giving full reasons for the rejection of any complaint.
Each college is accountable under the law and decisions may be challenged if a college is alleged to have failed to fulfil its legal duties, acted outside its powers or failed to ensure that the provisions of natural justice have been followed.
If the FEFC is called upon to investigate a complaint it stresses that it would seek evidence in the form of supporting material, such as letters, rather than simply a statement from the college. In one or two previous complaints the council has found that colleges had not obtained the views of students who were witness to key events, relying instead on statements given by staff. Independent corroboration of events surrounding a complaint should be sought, the council says.
In most cases, however, it believes that complainants will be satisfied with an apology, an assurance that a problem will not recur or a refund of fees. It is a lesson which one college learned the hard way. A student on a BTEC national business and finance course was suspended by his college for alleged drug offences. His father complained that staff used foul language and pressured the student to admit to the possession of illegal substances. It was also alleged that a member of staff insulted the student and another student in a discussion of their coursework.
The college was accused of failing to provide records of meetings or to ensure that the complaint was dealt with properly or courteously.
The FEFC investigation was unable to establish whether the assaults took place because of the absence of independent evidence. However, the college was advised by the council to revise and clarify its procedures and as a direct result several changes have been made.