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Business going forward, not business as usual

Redefining what is 'reasonable' and 'fair' in student complaints

In recent weeks our Universities have responded to support students and maintain services as far as practicable in the current circumstances. However, the class of 2019/20 have faced unprecedented disruption to studies from industrial action, COVID-19 and for some students, discrete unconnected issues. In these circumstances, how can Universities respond reasonably and fairly to complaints? Student complaint services are likely to face significant challenges from the volume and complexity of complaints following the assessment period. Listed below are points for student complaint services to consider as part of a comprehensive response:

  • The impact of the disruption means the core contractual obligations made in the student contract, the prospectus and other course related documentation cannot be fulfilled. Certain cohorts are likely to be adversely impacted by changes imposed in response to the pandemic and have greater cause for complaint as a result. The triage and categorisation of types of complaint and complainant will lead to swifter responses to complaints and consistency of treatment.
  • The student contract itself should be reviewed in light of the shift from ‘business as usual’ to the landscape of ‘business going forward’. The latter of these two being a different proposition to the offer put forward in materials, published in a now outdated Prospectus, written in 2018 or even earlier.
  • Consultation with students around the redefinition of what is deliverable and how it is going to be delivered will be crucial to engage with students on what is realistic and to manage those expectations going forward. Those discussions will influence what is likely to be considered as ‘reasonable’ and ‘fair’ treatment of students in the future.
  • The immediate changes to academic delivery were implemented quickly in an agile response to a crisis. Analysis by academics of what has, and has not, been effective will take time to assess and modify. Working through a sustainable blueprint for future delivery will involve consultation with students based on transparent information. Universities communicating with students on the timeframes for feedback on those findings and discussions around the future plans for their course will help avoid student dissatisfaction arising in 2020/2021.
  • Students will be concerned about graduating during an economic downturn, their employment prospects, debt, coping with the shift to online delivery and potential adverse impact on their academic achievement due to the changes in assessment and examinations. Some areas of complaint will not be the responsibility of the University. However, the University will need to articulate an institutional response to all concerns raised as part of a fair and proportionate response. For example, it will not be sufficient to respond by saying the University is not responsible for the economic downturn. The University is the student’s source of support on careers and employability and the complaint response should reflect relevant services and opportunities which remain available.
  • The current cohort of students has certainly lost the opportunity to develop intellectual skills and benefit from the host of other services, opportunities and experiences from attending campus during the final term. Work undertaken by Universities to simulate where possible those aspects for students during this period will go some way to mitigating the impact.
  • Each institution has dealt with the particular challenges facing their students. Inevitably, the sector response has been fractured and some institutions have a broader range of options than others available to mitigate the impact on students. Students may raise criticisms of their home institution in terms of the restorative response by comparison to other Universities. The home institution is likely to benefit from a transparent briefing document for students explaining the rationale for the strategy the University adopted and why particular decisions around academic assessment, online tutorials, cancellation of particular modules etc. were made.
  • Managing student complaints arising from the disruptions of 2019/2020 will be challenging. The key to responding effectively to complaints (particularly from continuing students) is to engage as quickly as possible to resolve complaints on a collective basis where possible. There are a number of tools the University can adopt to facilitate this approach. The starting point is ensuring the complaints team is adequately resourced. Additionally, having in place a clear Complaint Plan from the outset. This will form the bedrock of a consistent approach to decision making and be informed by a comprehensive analysis of the complaint themes emerging or likely to emerge, at the University. The Complaint Plan will identify where the University will accede or resist certain areas of complaint. The approach taken is a competitive decision likely to affect branding and satisfaction among students.

We have a student complaints team to support University clients with these challenges. Please contact the author, Susan Matthews, on susan.matthews@weightmans.com if you would like to discuss how we can support you.

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