Student complaints time limits 'improve service'

Rules introduced by Scotland's ombudsman have forced universities to improve how they handle student complaints, says University of Edinburgh expert

March 22, 2016
Fernando Alonso makes pit stop, Formula One Grand Prix, Silverstone, 2013
Source: Reuters
Feel the need for speed: Scottish universities have only five working days to investigate student complaints

Rules that require Scotland’s universities to wrap up student complaints within a month have forced institutions to improve their investigations, a conference has heard.

Jean Grier, investigations manager at the University of Edinburgh, told the Association of University Administrators' annual conference in Leeds on 21 March that tough rules imposed on higher education institutions north of the border in 2013 have led to a significant improvement in handling of student complaints, many of which were resolved in less than a week.

Unlike English universities, those in Scotland have just five working days to investigate and report back on student grievances.

Institutions have 20 working days to investigate and issue a full response if complaints are deemed more complex under the two-stage process introduced by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

The requirements to turn around complaints so rapidly has led many institutions to sort out grievances at the very earliest stage, said Ms Grier, who is also research and projects officer for Edinburgh’s vice-principals.

“Some are achieving very high frontline resolution rates,” she told Times Higher Education ahead of her talk at the AUA conference.

“We are handling complaints better than we were when the scheme came in,” she added. However, the 20-day time limit to resolve complaints was often “very challenging”.

“We are talking about cases where we need to arrange meetings with busy academics, senior staff or students who might no longer be at the university,” she said. “Setting up interviews within 20 working days can be very difficult."

There are no binding rules for English universities about how quickly they must settle complaints, but they are advised by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to conclude investigations within 90 days – three times as long as the mandatory time limit set in Scotland.

More stretching proposals on how promptly complaints should be dealt with, advising a two-month turnaround, were dropped by the OIA from the final version of its good practice framework for universities in England and Wales, published in December 2014.

Those plans were put forward by the OIA amid concerns that universities were using lengthy and confusing complaints and appeals processes to deter students from pursuing grievances to a conclusion.

The OIA has also advised universities to emulate those that have undertaken to sort out complaints early on, helping to avoid prolonged disputes that are damaging to both students and institutions.

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