In recent years there have been events affecting the higher education sector that have had the potential to lead to large numbers of complaints to us, including the impact of Covid-19 and the unprecedented disruption it is causing. We developed our approach in response to the industrial action in 2018-19 and to the closure of GSM London, streamlining our processes to enable us to manage the complaints effectively and efficiently. We now propose to build on this and on our existing approach to group complaints by developing a bespoke approach to handling complaints from large groups of students.
Events that cause significant disruption do not necessarily lead to large groups of students complaining to us. Much depends on the circumstances and on how effectively the provider is able to manage the disruption. But we believe it is important that we are properly prepared and that we can handle large group complaints in a way that works for everyone involved.
Proposed Large Group Complaints process
Our proposed Large Group Complaints process recognises that to provide an effective service for handling very large group complaints, we would need to consider such complaints collectively rather than focusing on individual aspects and to adapt our normal review process, so that we can handle them efficiently whilst maintaining fairness.
This does mean that the proposed process gives individuals less opportunity to express their unique concerns and to challenge our decisions. We believe that in certain circumstances this is outweighed by the benefit of being able to get large numbers of students a fair outcome to their complaint in a way that is consistent, efficient and less resource intensive for everyone involved, supported by robust internal quality assurance.
We envisage that the Large Group Complaints process would be best suited to situations where there is a high degree of commonality between the complaints in a group, or where within a large group, complaints can be divided into a small number of sub-groups if students have been affected by the issue in slightly different ways.
Under the Large Group Complaints process we would have discussions with the provider’s OIA Point of Contact from an early stage to understand the provider’s position and to help us and the provider to manage the logistics effectively. It will be important to try to identify students with complaints that could be included in the Large Group Complaint so that we can review the complaints together. So for example we may accept some complaints as part of the group that have not completed the provider’s internal processes, and we may set a much shorter deadline than our usual 12 months for complaints that are part of the Large Group Complaint to be submitted to us.
We would share information and documents that we consider to be relevant to our decision with the provider and with all the students in the Large Group Complaint. As well as being able to explain their complaint to us on their Complaint Form, the students would have a collective opportunity as part of the process to share their views with us, for example through an online discussion session. If we propose to make Recommendations as a result of our review, we may give the students collectively and the provider the opportunity to comment on them where we think this would help to reach a fair outcome.
Case fee element of subscriptions
Under our subscriptions system, when we determine the amount if any a provider must pay as their case fee element, we have discretion to reduce the points allocated (and therefore the amount payable) for cases that are part of a group complaint. This would also apply to group complaints we review under the Large Group Complaints process. If we review cases under the Large Group Complaints process, the provider would not pay more for the case fee element than if we had reviewed the cases involved under our normal processes.
Proposed new Rule and Large Group Complaints Rules
This consultation closed on 30 November 2020. We received 71 responses and we are grateful to everyone who shared their thoughts.
While some welcomed the prospect of making handling large group complaints more efficient, concerns were also expressed and we are now carefully considering how we can develop our proposals to address these. It also appeared from some responses that there may be a lack of clarity about the purpose of this process, which we hope to be able to resolve.
We plan to publish a response in the new year which we hope will address the concerns raised, and will give more information about how the proposed process might work. There will be a further opportunity to comment at that stage.