Universities should seek to wrap up student complaints within a few weeks, according to guidelines from higher education’s ombudsman.
In an effort to standardise complaints procedures across the sector, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator states that all universities should introduce an “informal resolution stage”, which should deal with straightforward concerns within a fortnight.
If complaints cannot be resolved within that period, students should be able to take their grievances to a “formal stage” that lasts no longer than one month, it adds.
Those unhappy with the outcome of their complaint should then be able to access a “review stage”, which will take no longer than 21 days, says the OIA in its draft Good Practice Framework for Handling Complaints and Academic Appeals, published for consultation on 3 April 2014. It is the first time the OIA, which rules whether universities have followed their own procedures, has stipulated time limits within which universities should process student complaints.
The recommendation is backed by the National Union of Students, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Association of Heads of University Administration and the Academic Registrars Council, which co-wrote the new framework with the OIA.
“Students consulted told us that universities took too long to resolve complaints,” said Rob Behrens, head of the OIA.
Under the new rules, universities in England and Wales, which are covered by the framework, would still have sufficient time to deal with student complaints both informally and formally, Mr Behrens added.
“In Scotland, their time frame is much tighter; they are allowed only 20 days [to investigate a complaint], while we are allowing nearly two months,” he explained.
Under existing legislation, universities are not compelled to follow the OIA’s advice and can keep their own procedures, but from now on they will have to explain why they are not adopting the recommendations.
This approach respected university autonomy and was not “prescriptive”, but would help to simplify the complex complaints procedures at some universities, Mr Behrens said.
“There is common ground [among universities] that there should be a common process with a maximum of three stages,” he said.
The report also suggests adoption of the early dispute resolution approaches used at the universities of Aston, Edge Hill, Huddersfield, Kingston and Sheffield to help cut the number of formal complaints.
Use of such methods may go some way towards explaining why the number of student complaints processed by the OIA has “levelled off” since £9,000 tuition fees were introduced in 2012, rather than increasing dramatically, as many expected, Mr Behrens added. “We think universities are spending more time seeking to settle complaints within their university,” he said.
A fee, charged by the OIA to universities with a disproportionate number of unresolved student complaints, and introduced earlier this year, had also encouraged institutions to improve their procedures, he added.