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University student complaints over courses hit record

The annual OIA report on student complaints is a barometer for those of us working with universities on effective responses to student issues.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) Annual Report 2021 should be the basis for universities investing in strategies for student complaints handling to reduce the number of complaints being pursued via university complaints processes. There is an opportunity for university clients to develop strategies to change the context of "complaints" within the institution, focus on early intervention and improve student satisfaction.

The annual OIA report on student complaints is a barometer for those of us working with universities on effective responses to student issues. As anticipated, the cost and volume of complaints to the OIA is increasing. The OIA reports that the overall total financial compensation in 2021 was £1,304,379, significantly higher than in previous years. The OIA received 2,763 complaints (a 6% increase on 2020). Our Resolve service supports a range of universities on student complaints handling and the last four years have shown that complaint investigations are becoming increasingly complex and present challenges for university staff. Our clients are taking a proactive approach to complaints with our support.

The reasons for investing in new approaches to student complaints

  • The OIA figures are not the true cost of complaints when other costs are taken into account such as financial settlements reached at local level, the significant cost of staff time in responding to student expressions of dissatisfaction (before they become formal complaints), the administration cost of dealing with complaints and responding to OIA enquiries etc.
  • The reputational cost of a dissatisfied student can translate to surveys and other indications of student satisfaction with a direct impact on the university.
  • There are often complex reasons why attempts to resolve issues early are unsuccessful. Universities are complex organisations which staff can find difficult to navigate successfully, particularly where an issue involves another discrete service area. The solution to a student's issue often rests outside the scope of the student department's authority and, as we know, a decision at university level often takes time. In the interim, the current student remains dissatisfied and problems can become compounded.
  • The OIA report shows that their cases are increasing and it is very unlikely that this will take a downward trend in 2022, given staff industrial action. The return on investment in changing from a complaints handling approach to a strategy of holistic early engagement and response will produce gains as the number of formal complaints fall and staff time is saved.

There is an opportunity for university clients to make a positive change in responding to student complaints:

  • We have expertise in working with university clients to develop bespoke complaint responses.
  • We support clients to identify new complaint arrangements cognisant of the local processes to minimise disruption.
  • We review staff structures, responsibilities and accountability for student matters in the context of issues raised by students.
  • A bespoke client solution will routinely involve: training staff to act as points of contact as an early response to give effective responses to complainants; devising a mechanism to facilitate a prompt cross-campus response to issues raised; empowering key staff to receive timely information and facilitate early resolutions where possible; and reviewing processes and procedures.
  • We produce a solution we believe will meet a client's requirements.

Our support to universities in this area

We help clients introduce step changes to the approach to complaints based on an early intervention strategy to reduce the number of issues becoming complaints. The university makes a step change by taking a holistic approach focused on early intervention and prompt response. The emphasis shifts when the student ceases to be perceived as a potential complainant and instead becomes a participant in a discussion with a trained member of staff to explore their particular issue.

We work with clients on setting up mechanisms for a holistic response to change the approach to a “complaint/complainant” within a university context. Our work in this area is based on understanding the client's context and the current structures in place. We identify operational issues and improvements affecting the student relationship which usually link complaints handling with other areas; for example, student engagement, enhancing student satisfaction, access to support services etc.

We are currently working with universities on early responses to dissatisfaction (before a formal complaint is made): advising on formal complaints handling; conducting investigations on behalf of the university; providing management reports on emerging themes identifying improvements; and training staff on complaints handling etc.

For more information on any of the issues discussed, please visit our Resolve students complaints page.

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