Good practice framework

Complaints and academic appeals

7. Providers normally operate separate complaints and academic appeals procedures. The framework distinguishes between complaints and academic appeals where appropriate but expects the underlying principles of good practice to apply to both.

8. It is reasonable for providers to expect students to refer to and follow the provider’s own policies and procedures (and access local support available to them through advice centres or the students’ union) if they wish to make a complaint or academic appeal. A provider’s procedures will specify any deadlines that students need to meet for making submissions at each stage of the process.

9. It is important for providers and students to be clear about which procedure students should use in different circumstances.

 

Who can make a complaint or academic appeal?

10. A provider’s complaints and academic appeals procedures are intended to be used by its students. The term ‘student’ refers to students who have registered or enrolled on their course [5]. It also includes those who have recently left a provider, although former students may only be able to raise issues of complaint or academic appeal within an explicitly defined period after the end of their studies. This will be made clear in each provider’s own published regulations and procedures.

11. Students will usually be able to access and submit a complaint or academic appeal themselves. However, there may be cases where a student is unable or reluctant to make a complaint or academic appeal without support. It is good practice for the provider’s regulations to permit students to be supported, advised or represented by third parties, for example a students’ union officer or adviser. If a student has a representative, that should not delay the process. The provider should take care to comply with data protection legislation and the provider’s guidance on handling personal information. It is reasonable for providers to decline to accept complaints from third parties unless they are acting as a student’s representative.

12. Where the issues raised affect a number of students, those students can submit a complaint or academic appeal as a ‘group complaint’ or a ‘group appeal’. In such circumstances, the provider can ask the group to nominate one student to act as group representative. The provider may decide to communicate only through the representative and expect him or her to liaise with the other students.

13. Students should have confidence that they will be protected under the terms of a provider’s complaints procedure and it should not be necessary to bring anonymous complaints. Exceptionally, however, a provider may decide to consider an anonymous complaint if there is a compelling case – supported by evidence – for the matter to be investigated. Providers should explain to students that raising a concern anonymously might impede the investigation and communication of the outcome.

 

What is a complaint?

14. For the purpose of this framework, a student complaint is defined as:

“an expression of dissatisfaction by one or more students about a provider’s action or lack of action, or about the standard of service provided by or on behalf of the provider.”

This embraces, but is broader than, the definition of a complaint within the UK Quality Code, which is limited to the “expression of a specific concern about matters that affect the quality of a student’s learning opportunities.”[6] Some providers use different terminology, for example referring to ‘grievances’ or ‘representations’.

15. Examples of complaints include:

  • failure by the provider to meet obligations including those outlined in course/student handbooks or a student charter
  • misleading or incorrect information in prospectuses or promotional material and other information provided by the provider
  • concerns about the delivery of a programme, teaching or administration including, where applicable, that provided by a partner provider
  • poor quality of facilities, learning resources or services provided directly by the provider
  • complaints involving other organisations or contractors providing a service on behalf of the provider.

16. Some issues may more appropriately be considered under alternative processes rather than under the complaints procedure. For example, the following are not normally dealt with as complaints:

  • a concern about a decision made by an academic body regarding student progression, academic assessment and awards
  • dissatisfaction about the outcome of an academic misconduct or disciplinary process
  • a concern about a decision made under other specific regulations, such as fitness to practise
  • matters relating to the Student Loans Company, which has its own complaints procedures.

 

What is an academic appeal?

17. For the purposes of this framework, and in line with the UK Quality Code, an academic appeal is defined as:

“A request for a review of a decision of an academic body charged with making decisions on student progress, assessment and awards.”[7]

Some providers use different terminology, for example referring to a ‘discretionary panel procedure’ or a ‘representation.’

18. An academic appeal relates to the outcome of an assessment or examination, or a student’s progression, and may be based on:

  • a procedural irregularity in the assessment process
  • bias or perception of bias
  • mitigating (extenuating) circumstances where, for good reason, the academic body was not made aware of a significant factor relating to the assessment of a student when it made its original decision.

19. The provider needs to state clearly the scope of the academic appeals process and the grounds on which an academic appeal may be lodged. The following are not normally considered to be legitimate grounds for an academic appeal:

  • where a student questions the exercise of academic judgment, that is, the decision made by academic staff on the quality of the work itself or the criteria being applied to mark the work (rather than the administrative marking process)
  • where a student disagrees with the conclusions reached by the individual or panel which considered his or her mitigating (extenuating) circumstances.

20. In line with the language of the Higher Education Act 2004 all submissions to the OIA are called ‘complaints’ whether they relate to a complaint or an academic appeal.


Deciding which process to use

21. Many students raise issues which do not fall neatly into the category of either complaint or academic appeal. Where this happens, it is good practice to tell the student which specific issues will be considered under which specific procedure and to direct the student to the alternative appropriate procedure, for example, the academic appeals procedure, for the remaining issues.

Case study: Deciding which process to use

A student submits an academic appeal on several grounds, one of which is that he has been bullied by his supervisor. The provider informs the student that it is suspending consideration of the appeal until the bullying allegation has been investigated under its Harassment and Bullying Procedures. Once that process has been completed, the appeal process can continue.

22. Alternatively a provider may, with the agreement of the student, decide to consider matters together, for example, where an academic appeal raises issues which need to be investigated under the complaints procedures. The provider should explain to the student how the matters will be investigated, where responsibility for overall conduct of the matter lies, and who will issue the final decision.

23. It is good practice to inform the student of the implications, if any, of following two procedures at the same time, particularly where one procedure may be suspended pending the completion of another.

 

Complaints and appeals involving more than one academic provider or awarding body

24. Guidance on dealing with complaints and academic appeals involving more than one provider or awarding body can be found in the Good Practice Framework: delivering learning opportunities with others.[8]


Complaints involving other organisations or contractors who provide a service on behalf of the provider

25. A student may wish to complain about the service provided by another organisation (which is not a higher education provider) on behalf of the higher education provider, for example accommodation services or IT. It is good practice to advise the student to contact the appropriate organisation directly, and for providers to ensure that those organisations have appropriate complaints procedures in place.

26. Students should be able to complain directly to the provider about a service provided by another organisation, for example, a placement provider, which the student feels has impacted on his or her learning experience.[9]

27. If a provider needs to make enquiries to an outside organisation when investigating a complaint, it should take care to comply with data protection legislation and the provider’s guidance on handling personal information.

 

Complaints about staff

28. Complaints by students about staff can be difficult to handle as there may be a conflict of interest for the staff investigating the complaint. When complaints are raised against staff it is essential that the investigation is conducted by an individual who is independent of the situation. Appropriate support should be in place to help the student and staff member through the process. It is important to ensure that there are robust governance arrangements in place that set out clear procedures for handling such complaints.

 

Complaints about the students’ union

29. Providers should ensure that complaints about their students’ union are dealt with fairly and promptly and that an effective remedy is provided when a complaint is upheld. The students’ union procedures must include provision for an independent person appointed by the provider’s governing body to investigate and report on complaints.[10]

 

Making a complaint or academic appeal

30. Individual providers will normally ask students to submit a complaint or academic appeal by e-mail or online by completing the appropriate form. Students may appoint a representative to submit the complaint or academic appeal for them.

31. Providers can require students to set out their concerns clearly and succinctly and provide evidence to substantiate the issues raised where possible. An investigation will gather information, but it is reasonable to expect students to obtain and provide evidence relevant to their complaint or academic appeal. It is good practice for the provider’s procedures to set out the types of evidence that may be required. This may include independent medical evidence, reports by professionals, financial information or witness statements.

32. Students may indicate that they wish their complaint or academic appeal or elements within it (for example, a statement from a witness or medical evidence) to remain confidential. All complaints and academic appeals need to be managed in a confidential and sensitive way. However, it may be necessary to ask staff involved in the complaint or academic appeal to comment on or respond to the statements made. It is good practice for procedures to set out the circumstances in which the entire complaint or academic appeal – or elements of it – can be kept confidential. An example might be where a student provides a corroborating statement in support of a complaint about a member of staff and wishes his or her name to be removed from the statement when it is shown to that member of staff.

33. It is good practice for procedures to set time limits within which students are to submit complaints and academic appeals, and for these time limits to be clearly communicated to students. It is also good practice to draw students’ attention to relevant time limits in correspondence notifying them of the decision of an academic body.

34. Providers will need to exercise discretion where there is good reason, supported by evidence, for late submission of a complaint or academic appeal. Providers must also be mindful of their obligations under the Equality Act when considering whether there are exceptional reasons to accept a complaint or academic appeal outside the normal time limit, or whether it would be reasonable to make adjustments to the provider’s normal procedures. Advice should be sought from the provider’s disability support team where appropriate. It is good practice to document cases where late submission is accepted.

Case study: Late submission - the Equality Act

A student has mental health difficulties and receives support from the provider’s disability support team. She submits an appeal to the provider on the grounds that she missed her examinations because of her ongoing mental health difficulties. Her appeal is submitted late and she says that this is because she has difficulty in meeting deadlines as a result of her disability. This is supported by the disability support team. The provider should consider whether its appeal procedures are placing the student at a disadvantage as a result of her disability, and whether it would be reasonable to adjust those procedures, for example by extending the deadline, in order to remove that disadvantage.


Timeliness

35. Each provider has its own timelines and deadlines for the formal and review stages. It is good practice for providers to complete consideration of a formal complaint or academic appeal and any associated review within 90 calendar days. The 90 calendar day timeframe requires students to meet any deadlines set by the provider for the submission of material. There will occasionally be circumstances when, for good reason, the provider will need to extend the timeframe. Where this is the case the provider should notify the student and keep the student regularly informed of progress.

 

[5] To bring a complaint to the OIA a student must be or have been a registered student at a provider that subscribes to the OIA.

[6] QAA, UK Quality Code, Ibid.

[7] QAA UK Quality Code, Ibid.

[8] Draft guidance published for consultation December 2016

[9] QAA UK Quality Code, Ibid.

[10] Section 22 of the Education Act 1994 sets out the responsibilities of universities for their students’ unions.

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