Student complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator - the higher education ombudsman in England and Wales - have risen by more than 20 per cent each year for five of the past six years.
Although the overall number of complaints is very small compared with the number of enrolled students, each complaint matters greatly to the student concerned and to their university.
The European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education is meeting in Oxford this week for its 10th anniversary conference. An increase in complaints in the context of rising university costs is a common experience, making the sharing of good practice - between what Tony Wright, when chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, called a “grump” of ombudsmen - not only worthwhile but imperative.
A common feature of universities in other jurisdictions is a local campus ombudsman who, independent of the institution’s structures and alert to early signs of grievance, can resolve problems before they escalate into litigation. A recent OIA consultation examined the merits of this system but rejected it, because it replicated functions already carried out effectively in England and Wales by strong students’ unions, well- resourced student services centres and the OIA, which acts as ombudsman as a last resort. As Mao Zedong put it (in another context): “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse.”
Although there are differences, there is still much to learn and share. Early resolution of complaints is a critical common goal. It is not unusual for a student who complains to the OIA to have already spent six months, a year or even longer going through the internal complaints process at their university. That is a long time and for students on professional courses such as law, medicine and social work, where there is a time limit on qualification imposed by professional regulators, it can have lasting adverse implications.
The more complaints there are, the greater the pressure to find quicker, more effective ways of dealing with cases
Of course, any delays at OIA compound this difficulty. The more complaints there are, the greater the pressure to find quicker, more effective ways of dealing with cases, without jeopardising the quality of decisions.
Despite the excellence of individual staff, complaints handling in English and Welsh universities could be improved by adopting the practice of mediation seen overseas, and the development of written frameworks for good practice in the handling of complaints and appeals. In England and Wales, these are features of pilot projects launched this year in a dozen universities and of a collaborative project to develop a sector-wide framework.
Failure to learn and develop good practice is not an option for UK universities. There is reputational risk in the fact that in the National Student Survey, scores for “assessment and feedback” routinely trail behind overall satisfaction levels. And there is evidence from a study conducted for the OIA by researchers at King’s College London that those who complain unsuccessfully to their university are left with overwhelmingly negative views of university processes characterised by feelings such as disappointment, frustration, humiliation, sadness, even depression. What students think may not always be objectively “true”, but if they think it, it doesn’t mean that it’s less true in terms of their own experience.
Long drawn-out processes are also expensive and time-consuming. Although the OIA’s costs per complaint are reducing year-on-year, the average cost of handling a complaint is still just over £1,600. That is, of course, a fraction of the cost of taking a case through the courts. In England and Wales to date there have been about 40 judicial review cases in which the OIA has been either the subject or an interested party in a claim. Only one case has been upheld so far, but more effective early resolution will save precious time and money. The prize is also enhanced professionalism, which can directly affect the student experience, and more time and energy to focus on learning and the development of students’ knowledge and skills.