Good practice framework

The complaints process

Overview

36. It is good practice for providers’ complaints procedures to include:

  • opportunity for early resolution at a local level
  • a formal stage for the investigation and determination of complaints
  • a review stage.

37. Early resolution is designed to address straightforward concerns swiftly and locally, for example at school or faculty level, before a student escalates them into a formal complaint. This might include, for example, face to face discussion with the student, or asking an appropriate member of staff, or mediator or conciliator, to deal with the matter. Where proportionate the provider should write to the student setting out the outcome.

38. The formal stage is used where a student is dissatisfied with the outcome of early resolution, or where early resolution is not possible or suitable due to the character, complexity or seriousness of the case. The formal stage should normally be dealt with by people who have not been involved previously, and may include mediation or conciliation where appropriate. The provider should write to the student setting out the outcome at the conclusion of this stage.

39. The review stage is where the student can appeal to a higher body within the provider for a review of the process of the formal complaint to ensure that appropriate procedures were followed and that the decision was reasonable. This stage does not necessarily require a reconsideration of the issues raised. The provider should write to the student setting out its decision at the conclusion of this stage.

 

Mediation and conciliation

40. Mediation and conciliation[11] are usually voluntary processes where an impartial, independent third party helps parties to a dispute resolve issues confidentially. Using mediation or conciliation during the early resolution stage can help both parties to understand what is driving the concern and may be more likely to result in a swift and mutually satisfactory conclusion being reached. Mediation or conciliation may be particularly helpful in resolving disputes between students.

41. Where both the provider and the student agree to mediation or conciliation in the formal stage of considering a complaint they should agree revised timescales. All parties need to be clear about the scope of the mediation or conciliation process, how the arrangement fits with other procedures, and whether the parties are expected to agree in advance to accept the solution offered by the conciliator. It may be necessary to restart the formal process if agreement cannot be reached.

 

Early resolution

42. Effective complaints handling systems have a local, informal element which is capable of resolving student concerns before they escalate into formal complaints. Providers have developed many effective ways of dealing with routine student concerns. These include:

  • giving more information or a more detailed explanation
  • suggesting solutions
  • being empathetic and understanding when there is no apparent solution
  • giving an apology where it seems appropriate to do so
  • introducing student and staff conciliators.

43. Research indicates that the amount and nature of early resolution in dispute resolution may not be well understood or documented.[12] Nevertheless, the success of the OIA Early Resolution Pilots Initiative in a number of universities in England and Wales demonstrates the value of providers having mechanisms available to resolve concerns before they escalate into formal complaints.

44. Questions to consider in attempting early resolution of concerns might include:

  • What specifically is the concern about and which area(s) of the provider is/are involved?
  • What outcome is the student hoping for and can it be achieved?
  • Is the concern straightforward and likely to be resolved with little or no investigation?
  • Can it be resolved on the spot by providing, where appropriate, an explanation, an alternative solution or an apology?
  • Can someone else assist in seeking resolution, for example where an informal administrative resolution is required?
  • Would it be helpful to use confidential mediation or conciliation, and are the student and the provider willing to do so?
  • What assistance or support can be provided to the student in taking this forward?

45. Whatever early resolution mechanism is used, students should be able to air their concerns and feel that they have been listened to. It may be possible to resolve the concern by providing an on-the-spot explanation of why the issue occurred and/or (where appropriate) an apology and an explanation of what will be done to stop a similar situation happening in the future. Providers may wish to advise staff on issuing and recording apologies and to allay any concerns that an apology creates a legal liability.

46. If responsibility for the issue raised lies in the staff member’s area of work, every attempt should be made to resolve the concern at source in consultation with the student. If responsibility lies elsewhere, the staff member should work with the relevant colleagues to help resolve the student’s concern, rather than simply passing the student on to another office. Where this is not possible, and the student is directed to liaise with another office, it is good practice to introduce the student to the person who will deal with the concern or to make an appointment for the student to meet them at the earliest opportunity.

47. Where it is clear early resolution is not appropriate or possible, and that a concern will need to proceed immediately to the formal stage, the student should be directed promptly to the relevant procedure. He or she should be advised to complete the appropriate form to provide full details of the complaint and to provide any relevant documentation. It is good practice to inform the student of any time limits for submission and where and how to access advice and support, for example the students’ union or student representative(s), the student advice centre, professional association or the relevant trade union.

48. At the conclusion of an attempt at early resolution, and where proportionate, the provider should write to the student setting out the outcome.

49. It is good practice to record the actions taken to consider and resolve the concern, the decision, and minimum details of what was communicated to the student, and when. This can then be accessible to those dealing with any formal complaint at a later stage.

 

Formal complaint

50. The formal complaints process is triggered when:

  • the student declines to engage with early resolution and initiates the formal process in line with the provider’s procedures
  • early resolution was attempted, but the student remains dissatisfied and initiates the formal process in line with provider procedures
  • the issues raised are complex and will require detailed investigation, for example where a complaint relates to the conduct of staff members or covers a number of different incidents.

51. Key questions to consider could include:

  • Is this a complaint or academic appeal? Should the student be referred to another procedure?
  • Was early resolution attempted? If not, should the matter be referred back to that stage?
  • Has the student set out clearly what the complaint is about and which area(s) of the provider is /are involved?
  • Has the student provided evidence in support of the complaint?
  • What outcome is the student hoping for and can it be achieved?
  • Is the complaint suitable for mediation or conciliation?
  • What assistance or support can be provided to the student in taking this forward?

52. Some complaints may require the provider to take particularly swift action. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • complaints involving a threat of serious harm
  • cases where the impact of the issues raised has detrimental consequences for the student’s mental health or where the student displays significant distress
  • complaints relating to disability support
  • issues of serious and repeated service failure and/or significant delay
  • issues of a highly sensitive nature.

Case study: Complaint about disability support requiring swift action

A student has recently discovered that he has dyslexia and the provider’s disability support team has prepared a report setting out his support needs. The student is unhappy about the support proposed in relation to examinations, and he makes a complaint. His final examinations are coming up. The provider considers the complaint within days of receiving it, and agrees to change the support for his examinations in time to implement those changes before the examinations commence.


What the provider will do when it receives a complaint for investigation

53. On receipt of a formal complaint the provider should undertake an initial evaluation to check that the complaint is submitted under the right procedures, within any deadline, and in the required format. This might result in:

  • the student being referred to a different procedure
  • the complaint being rejected, for example because it is submitted late
  • the complaint proceeding to formal consideration
  • referral to conciliation or mediation.

54. If the complaint is accepted for consideration it is good practice for the provider to allocate it to a member of staff who has had no previous involvement in the matter. It will not normally be appropriate to keep the name of the staff member investigating the complaint confidential. That would lack transparency and may undermine the student’s confidence in the process.

55. In smaller providers or departments it can be difficult to find a member of staff who has had no previous involvement to investigate the complaint. Every effort should be made to find a staff member who is sufficiently removed from any earlier process. It may be possible to ask a staff member from another part of the provider to investigate. Where this is not possible, the provider may be able to consult with the student in selecting an investigator in whom he or she would have confidence. Some providers may wish to develop a reciprocal arrangement with neighbouring providers so that each can call upon the other to provide a staff member to investigate a complaint, or to supervise the investigation to ensure that it is conducted impartially.

56. It is essential to be clear about exactly what is being investigated to ensure that both the staff member and student understand the purpose and scope of the investigation. The staff member should consider meeting with the student to facilitate this. If the student’s expectations appear to go beyond what the provider can reasonably deliver or what is in its power to deliver, the staff member should explain this to the student as soon as possible in writing in order to manage expectations about possible outcomes.

57. The procedures followed should be proportionate to the nature of the complaint and the complexity of the issues raised. The member of staff investigating the complaint may talk to key staff or other students and consider documents and other evidence. The staff member will produce a report based on his or her investigations which outlines the process followed, the information gathered, the conclusions drawn and any recommendations. The student or their representative should receive copies of the information considered and a copy of the investigation report. The staff member will also need to consider whether mediation or conciliation might be effective at this stage.

58. The staff member may refer his or her report to another senior member of staff for the recommendations to be agreed, or to a complaints panel if the provider’s procedures allow for the complaint to be considered by a panel at this stage. In appropriate cases, it may be reasonable to refer the complaint to another member of staff for a second opinion.

59. The complaints procedures should state whether the staff member investigating the complaint will meet with the student, and whether a complaint panel will be convened. It is good practice to set out clearly:

  • the circumstances in which a hearing or meeting will be held or a panel convened
  • the process to be followed
  • whether and in what circumstances the student may attend a panel hearing or meeting
  • whether they can be accompanied and/or be represented
  • whether the student is permitted to attend the meeting or panel by alternative means (for example by VIDEO LINK); and
  • whether the panel is permitted to conduct its discussions electronically.

 

Complaint hearings or meetings

60. If the complaint is to be considered by a panel hearing, or a meeting is to be held to consider the complaint, providers should take all necessary steps to ensure that the proceedings are conducted in a timely manner with adequate notice given to the student. This includes informing the student of any right to attend; how to access advice and support; any right to be accompanied, for example by a friend or students’ union representative; what role the representative or friend is permitted to play in the hearing or meeting; and any right to submit evidence or call witnesses. If the student is permitted to attend the panel hearing or meeting by alternative means (for example by VIDEO LINK), the procedures should explain how the provider will arrange and facilitate this.

61. It is good practice to provide the student in advance with information about the composition of the panel and others who may attend to give evidence and a copy of the information to be considered.

62. Fairness requires panels to be free of a reasonable perception of bias. The provider needs to consider the constitution of panels and take steps to ensure that those charged with reaching a decision have had no previous involvement in the matter, and are properly trained, resourced and supported. In addition it is good practice for panels to include an independent students’ union officer or representative.

63. A provider may decide that it would be helpful to hold a complaint hearing, but find it difficult to convene a panel of individuals who have had no previous involvement in the complaint. In those circumstances consideration should be given to bringing in staff from other parts of the provider, or from neighbouring providers, and to consulting with the student about the selection of panel members, in order to preserve the student’s confidence in the impartiality of the panel.

Case study: Information about a complaint panel

A student’s complaint is to be referred to the provider’s complaint panel. Under the provider’s procedures, she may attend a meeting of the panel. The provider writes to the student, inviting her to a panel meeting, three weeks before the proposed meeting date. The letter sets out:

 

  • the date of the meeting and an explanation of what the student needs to do if she cannot attend on that date, or does not wish to do so
  • the names of the panel members and their job titles
  • the names of anyone else attending the meeting and what their role will be
  • that she may be represented by a member of the Students’ Union Advice Centre, or may bring a friend to support her
  • an outline of how the meeting will proceed
  • copies of relevant documents.

 

64. Complaints procedures are internal to a provider and do not have the same degree of formality as a court of law. In most cases it will not be necessary or appropriate for a student or the provider to be legally represented at a complaints panel or meeting.

65. It is good practice to take a note of any meeting, setting out attendance, a brief outline of the proceedings, and the reasons for the decisions taken.

 

Closing the complaint at the formal stage

66. The provider should write to the student setting out the outcome of the formal stage, including any decision to reject the complaint at initial evaluation, giving a clear explanation and outlining the reasons for each decision in straightforward language. This will help the student decide whether or not to pursue the matter further.

67. The decision should also give information about:

  • the student’s right to take the complaint to the review stage
  • the grounds on which he or she can do so
  • the time limit for escalating to the review stage
  • the appropriate procedure
  • where and how to access support.

If the complaint has been rejected, for example because it has been submitted late, the provider should issue a Completion of Procedures letter,

68. If the student does not take the complaint to the review stage within the time limit for doing so, the provider should close the matter and notify the student in writing. It is good practice to issue a Completion of Procedures letter at this stage if the student asks the provider to do so, but the letter should explain that the student has not completed the provider’s internal processes. The OIA publishes guidance on issuing Completion of Procedures letters.[13]

69. Where a complaint is upheld, the provider should explain how and when it will implement any remedy, whether that includes an apology, and what the student can do if he or she remains dissatisfied.

70. The provider should keep records of formal complaints and their outcomes (see paragraphs 127-129).

 

Review of formal complaint

71. If a student is dissatisfied with the outcome of the formal stage, he or she can request a review. Providers can specify the grounds on which a student can request a review. A request for a review may be on limited grounds, including but not confined to:

  • a review of the procedures followed at the formal stage
  • a consideration of whether the outcome was reasonable
  • new material evidence which the student was unable, for valid reasons, to provide earlier in the process.

72. The review stage will not usually consider the issues afresh or involve a further investigation. A complaint must have been considered at the formal stage before it can be escalated to the review stage.

73. Providers can require a student (or his or her representative) to submit a request for review in writing, by e-mail or online by completing the appropriate form.

 

What the provider will do when it receives a request for review

74. The provider will allocate the request for review to a designated member of staff not involved at any previous stage. It is important to be clear from the start of the review stage exactly what is being reviewed, and to ensure that both the reviewer and the student understand the purpose and scope of the review. If the student’s expectations appear to exceed the scope of the review stage, the provider should explain this to the student as soon as possible in writing in order to manage expectations about possible outcomes.

75. The provider needs to make it clear in its procedures whether the reviewer is able to overturn the outcome of the formal stage, or whether the matter needs to be referred back to the formal stage for reconsideration.

76. Key questions to consider could include:

  • Were the relevant procedures followed during the formal stage?
  • Was the outcome reasonable in all the circumstances?
  • Has the student received clear reasons why the complaint was rejected at the formal stage?
  • If new material evidence has been provided, has the student given valid reasons for not supplying this earlier?

 

Closing the complaint at the review stage

77. If the complaint is not upheld the outcome of the review stage should be communicated to the student in writing by issuing a Completion of Procedures letter as soon as possible and within 28 days.[14] This should include a clear explanation and outline the reasons for the decision in straightforward language. This will help the student decide whether or not to pursue the matter further.

78. The decision should also advise the student about:

  • their right to submit a complaint to the OIA for review
  • the time limit for doing so
  • where and how to access advice and support.

The time limit for bringing a complaint to the OIA is 12 months. It is good practice to draw the student’s attention to any factors of which the provider is aware which mean that it is particularly important for the student to bring the complaint to the OIA promptly (for example because the remedy the student is seeking is time-sensitive).

79. Where a complaint is upheld, the provider should explain how and when it will implement any remedy, and whether that includes an apology. It is good practice to issue a Completion of Procedures letter if requested by the student. If the remedy proposed includes referring the complaint back to the formal stage for reconsideration, it is good practice to ensure that reconsideration is concluded as soon as possible and, where practicable, within the 90 calendar days timeframe.

 

Independent external review (OIA)

80. Once the review stage has been completed, the student is entitled to ask the OIA, the independent ombudsman service, to review his or her complaint about the outcome of the provider’s complaints process. The complaint should be submitted to the OIA within 12 months of the date of the Completion of Procedures letter.

 

 

[11] For definitions please see the glossary. The processes are examined in detail in Pathway 3, Ibid.

[12] Margaret Doyle, Varda Bondy, Carolyn Hirst, The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland: A mapping study Nuffield Foundation, October 2014.

[13] /providers-and-good-practice/completion-of-procedures-letter.aspx

[14] OIA Completion of Procedures Guidance, Ibid

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