There’s nothing like paying £9000 per year in tuition fees and watching your student loans balance mount to focus a student’s mind on getting what they paid for. And so it’s no wonder that following the tripling of tuition fees, complaints are up across the board.
This is true at the university level, and also visible nationally: the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), which acts as a “court” of last resort for HE students, says complaints were up 25 percent in the last year.
As students increasingly take a “consumer” role in further and higher education, academics can find themselves in the line of fire when things go wrong. What can you do to protect yourself and your career, and what do you need to know about responding when you receive a compliant?
It may not be pleasant, but your best defense is information. Many complaints are upheld solely on the basis that the university or lecturer involved cannot provide evidence needed to determine whether the complaint is valid.
At some universities, lecturers and support staff are now urged to retain copies of all communications with students, from email exchanges to assessment feedback, in case these are needed later.
This is a reminder that communication with students is the key issue at the base of many complaints that affect lecturers. We need to ensure that we communicate clearly, thoroughly and appropriately at all times.
This means considering whether your formative and summative feedback is flagging up issues before a failed module or course has a chance to become an issue, and ensuring that we answer student queries about processes and procedures. Failure to do so can cause serious problems later.
Know—and critique—University processes.
Many student complaints centre on university processes that have been inconsistently applied, or may not be fit for purpose: for example, processes around issues like plagiarism, disability accommodations, student support, extensions, extenuating circumstances, and fitness to practice aspects of professional programmes.
Often academics shy away from becoming knowledgeable about these until a problem has already occurred. In addition, the faults in processes that have been highlighted by the OIA are usually things that could have been fixed, had academics stepped up to take a role in guiding university policy rather than leaving it to administrators who may have much less direct student contact. We know the kinds of issues students often have, and how these can affect performance and progression. Improved policies that offer the right combination of flexibility and rigour would go far to prevent many complaints.
Know how to get help.
If you are targeted by a student complaint, don’t try to handle it alone. Ask the administrators of your university’s appeals and complaints department how to proceed. There may be internal processes for mediation—frequently the best solution—and they will have advice for you about what to do (and what not to do) when communicating with a complainant.
Your union can also provide advice and support.