Question: Why didn't I get a First?

A legal claim by a former Oxford University student (for circa £1m loss of earnings) has been highlighted in the media as a claim about the standard…

Potential Answer*: I didn’t work hard enough? (*other answers are available)

A legal claim by a former Oxford University student (for circa £1m loss of earnings) has been highlighted in the media as a claim about the standard of teaching and failure of the student to get a first.  The claim includes an assertion that the student would have attained a first class degree in 2000 but for a number of factors, itemised by the claimant as part of a poor university experience. 

The student obtained an upper second classification and claims as a consequence to have achieved lower earnings. At the end of November, the High Court considered the university’s preliminary application that the claim either be struck out or for summary judgment to be given in the university’s favour. The claim survived and a number of issues will proceed to be fully considered by the trial judge. This case and the particular legal issues will be determined in due course.  

The case itself (whether ultimately successful or not) and the reported lawyers’ comments (that more students will be affected by the matters raised by the claimant) highlight important points that universities can use to enhance the quality of support currently provided to students and a university’s responsiveness when issues first arise. 

Firstly, for those colleagues with a particular interest in student complaints, this is another example of a claim focussed on the alleged failure of teaching incapacity and the failure of a university to remedy it. The complaint theme of teaching incapacity is not unfamiliar and ‘in theory’ the scenario alleged in the claim should never arise. Academic cohort, programmes, timetables and staff workload plans are fixed months in advance and before the academic cycle commences. Further, a number of university staff are likely to be contemporaneously aware of any gaps or glitches affecting students.

Equally, such staff are unlikely to ignore the problem. One of the allegations in the Oxford case is that more than half the members of the faculty were away on sabbatical at the same time and the university was aware of this. One person is alleged to have taken on the teaching burden and the standard of teaching is said to have suffered as a result.  

Why then do complaints from students concerning, for example, access to and availability of staff arise, and what can a university do?  

One action would be to undertake scenario planning from a student perspective. Unexpected events crop up throughout the year, for example: staff illness; weather resulting in travel disruption; communication failures (times, locations of lecture/seminars etc.); staff leave or are absent from the university and there can be a delay in making alternative arrangements. The university’s ability to respond immediately to issues raised by students and to address them will help to avoid complaints arising and to manage the student experience. 

The university that is genuinely committed to delivering a quality service (and minimising complaints) will build quality into the student processes at the outset. This will include a plan for how the university will deliver a responsive approach to issues raised by students throughout the academic year.   

This means: anticipating problems that may occur, building in contingency arrangements at the planning stage and being clear on who is responsible to address the issue with the student.   

It does not mean: relying on members of staff who step in to fill the gap (often to personal detriment in terms of workload and stress) to defuse tense situations (by volunteering to take ownership of problems and leaving others to continue with the ‘high-quality’ and ‘important’ work) and generally to ease the pain endemic in a large organisation that fails to plan for unplanned eventualities or to respond quickly to address issues as they arise. 

The answers to some basic questions may not be as clear as they should be: 

  • Does the university have a clearly defined process for dealing with issues prior to the formal complaint process? Remember that there is a difference between knowledge and action. In other words, how clear are colleagues on understanding their role and the university’s expectations of them in addressing issues at the ‘informal’ complaint stage? 
  • Who will respond to the student who raises an issue? Is that individual empowered to resolve the issue (for example, if it is a staff resource issue as alleged in the claim)? 
  • Who are the named individuals responsible and accountable for service issues raised at an informal level? 
  • Are there clear signposts in place to direct students to experts on technical issues e.g. learning support, mental health services, disability services, counselling etc? 

The commitment to quality means addressing issues as they arise. Any student who feels that the only effective means of redress they have is to invoke the formal complaints procedure, represents a quality failure and a litigation risk. The cost of responding to formal complaints and defending legal claims are hidden costs. A university that lacks responsive capability may find the only response they have to a valid complaint is to apologise, thank the complainant for bringing the matter to their attention and to promise to factor it in to next year’s plans (to avoid it happening again). The opportunity to rectify the issue at an early stage has been lost. 

Of course, the facts of the Oxford case are not contemporary and current university practices will almost certainly have changed since 2000. The claim is based on alleged circumstances that pre-date the introduction of £3k annual fee charges in 2006 and £9k in 2012. Given the costs that current students are incurring, the stakes are higher and arguably, the students’ appetite to highlight (and potentially bring a formal complaint arising from) any perceived quality service gaps is likely to be stronger. Any student claim is likely to include repayment of fees and as the level of fees increases, so the university risk increases. 

The Oxford case is a reminder that service quality issues give rise to potential dissatisfaction among students. The opportunity for universities is to engage in scenario planning to test the University’s responsiveness to issues that can arise, to engender a positive culture that treats early complaints as an opportunity to engage and address issues. As in the Oxford case; an alleged ‘issue’ is unlikely to affect only one student and the multiplier effect of a cohort reclaiming fees is best managed as early as practicably possible with an effective response. 

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