Complaints and academic appeals
59 The general principles of the Good Practice Framework: handling complaints and academic appeals apply to all students whether or not they are disabled. This section draws out some issues which are of particular importance in this context.
Accessibility and clarity
60 Providers should write their regulations and procedures clearly and in straightforward language and make them accessible to students. This is especially important for students with specific learning difficulties and visual impairment.
61 Students should have access to support services to assist them in accessing and navigating processes. A disabled student may require some assistance completing the complaint or academic appeal form. Forms should be provided in hard copy formats which comply with clear print standards and in electronic formats which are compatible with commonly used assistive technologies such as screen readers. (UK Association for Accessible Formats guidance on creating clear and large print documents.)
62 Providers should ensure that any decisions taken are explained clearly and in accessible formats, having regard to any relevant recommendations in the student’s needs assessment.
63 Procedures should allow for students to appoint a representative. A students’ union adviser will normally be best placed to support the student because they will be familiar with the provider’s processes. (“It is good practice to provide students with access to support and advice and, where it is not practicable to do so internally, providers should consider making arrangements for students to access support services at neighbouring institutions, partner providers or other local community services.”) (The Good Practice Framework: handling complaints and academic appeals.) However, some disabled students may require additional external support. Processes should have flexibility to allow this where there is a genuine need. The representative should be permitted to speak on the student’s behalf if the student might otherwise be at a disadvantage.
64 In some cases it may be reasonable to make adjustments to the provider’s normal complaints or academic appeals processes to remove any disadvantage to the student. For example, it may be reasonable to adjust deadlines. It is reasonable to expect students to take responsibility for their own learning experience and to access a provider’s processes such as mitigating (extenuating) circumstances, academic appeals and complaints procedures within the prescribed time frames. However, some disabilities, for example, some mental health conditions, may impair a student’s ability to engage with processes or to meet deadlines. Providers should consider the likely impact an impairment may have on a student, and any worsening of a condition, and to show some flexibility in its processes where there is evidence that the student’s ability to properly engage with the provider’s processes at the prescribed time was impaired. It is good practice to document cases where late submission is accepted, and the reasons for rejecting late submission.
CASE STUDY 11:
Good practice – late submission
A student has mental health difficulties and receives support from the provider’s mental health adviser. She submits an appeal to the provider after missing an examination 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 because of her mental health. This is supported by the mental health adviser. The provider considers whether its appeal procedures are placing the student at a disadvantage because of her mental health, and whether it would be reasonable to adjust those procedures, for example by extending the deadline, to remove that disadvantage. The provider agrees to accept the appeal for consideration.
Proportionality, timeliness and fairness
65 The early resolution stage of a provider’s complaints procedures gives the provider the opportunity to resolve straightforward concerns quickly, without apportioning blame. For example, a student who complains that their agreed support has not been put in place is likely to be more interested in getting the support implemented than in finding out whose fault it was that the support has been delayed.
66 Mediation may be helpful in resolving disputes between students, or between staff members and a disabled student, for example, where the complaint arises from a lack of understanding, or perceived lack of understanding, of the student’s concerns. The provider’s student support services can play an important role in this process.
67 There may be particular reasons for expediting the complaints or academic appeals procedure, for example, because the student has severe anxiety.
68 If a disabled student has not been receiving the support they need, the provider should consider how this may have affected the student’s academic progress, whether or not the provider was at fault. It may be reasonable to permit a further attempt to allow a student to demonstrate their academic ability.
69 Sometimes students do not tell the provider that they are disabled until after their assessment or examination. In those cases, the provider will need to consider what action to take. If the information comes to light during the student’s appeal then the provider will need to consider whether its appeal procedures or progression regulations are putting the student at a substantial disadvantage as a result of their impairment. If they are, the provider will need to decide what it should reasonably do at that stage to remove that disadvantage.
70 If the information comes to light after the student has been withdrawn, the provider should nevertheless consider whether it would be reasonable to reconsider the student’s case. In reaching that decision, the provider should consider whether the student could reasonably have been expected to know about their impairment at an earlier stage; and how soon after the affected assessments the student notified the provider.
CASE STUDY 12:
Good practice – late notification
- A student fails her end of year examinations and is withdrawn from her course following an unsuccessful appeal. Eight months later she sees an Educational Psychologist who tells her that she has mild dyslexia. She sends a copy of her Educational Psychologist’s report to the provider nine months after the conclusion of her academic appeal.
The provider considers whether it should reopen the student’s academic appeal. It notes that the student’s personal tutor suggested to the student that she should go to student support services and ask for a dyslexia screening after he had marked one of her assessments. The student did not go.
The provider decides not to reopen the student’s academic appeal and writes to her explaining that this is because she could reasonably have discovered her impairment at an earlier stage, and that the information came to light too long after the assessments.
- A student fails two of his end of year examinations and his marks in other examinations are significantly lower than expected. He is withdrawn. He does not submit an appeal and the deadline for submitting one passes. His friends have been very worried about him for several weeks and insist that he goes to his GP. He sees his GP two weeks later and she diagnoses depression.
With the support of a students’ union adviser, the student submits an academic appeal after the deadline and asks for his mental health condition to be taken into account. He submits a letter from his GP saying that the student’s depression meant that he was not able to make rational judgments about his own health, and would not have been able to engage with the provider’s appeal processes.
The provider agrees to consider the student’s academic appeal because the medical evidence was produced soon after the examinations and says that he was not able to engage with the appeal procedures at the appropriate time. Having considered the student’s appeal the provider grants the student resit opportunities for the two failed examinations. It offers to waive its regulation which prevents students from resitting examinations that they have passed so that the student can resit the examinations in which he has underperformed. The provider’s student support services puts in place a support plan for the student.
Independence and confidentiality
71 Students with complex health difficulties may come into contact with more members of staff than other students. It may be difficult to identify a staff member who is sufficiently removed from any earlier process to investigate a complaint or consider an academic appeal. It may be possible to ask a staff member from another part of the provider to take on this role. Where this is not possible, the provider may be able to consult with the student so that it can select someone in whom they would have confidence.
72 If a student complains about the support services the provider should direct the student to other sources of support for the student.
73 It is good practice to ensure that sensitive information is kept confidential as far as possible, and is shared only with those who need to see it.
Improving the student experience
74 It is good practice for providers to learn from complaints and academic appeals, and to ensure that it shares this learning with teaching, research and support staff working collaboratively with students and representative student bodies to improve their processes. Providers should consider whether it is necessary to provide specific staff training following a complaint, for example to ensure that staff have a sound understanding of the learning needs of a student with a particular impairment.
75 A student may display behaviour as a consequence of their impairment which causes disruption or offence to other students or staff. Care should be taken to explain to the student why the behaviour is causing disruption or offence. A buddying or mentoring system may be helpful but the nature of support offered should be tailored to the individual and the particular circumstances. In some cases it may help to use a form of mediation or conciliation between the student and those affected by the behaviour.
76 In extreme cases, if a student’s behaviour is causing significant concern, a provider may consider whether to involve its support for study process. This may be an alternative to disciplinary action if the student’s behaviour is such that it is diminishing the learning experience of other students, or staff or students require protection.
77 A disabled student may breach the student code of conduct for reasons entirely unrelated to their disability. In such cases the provider may take disciplinary action in the same way as it would for any other student. However, the provider should consider whether reasonable adjustments need be made to its normal disciplinary procedures, and how best to support the student through the process.
CASE STUDY 13:
Good practice – discipline procedures and disability
- A first-year student (S) who is on the autism spectrum, begins a course in film production. In one of his lectures S meets a female student and they become friends. Later in the semester S starts to visit her at her work on placement when he has free time. She asks S to stop coming to her workplace but he continues to do so and tries to walk home with her.
The female student is alarmed by S’s behaviour and makes a complaint to her provider saying that S is harassing her. The provider decides to handle the disciplinary issue informally. The provider asks S’s mentor to meet with him. The mentor explains to S that his behaviour is making the other student feel uncomfortable. S agrees not to visit her workplace and explains that he did not realise how she felt. At the provider’s suggestion, S writes to the female student apologising for alarming her, and explaining how autisim spectrum disorder affects the way he interacts with others.
- A drama student was living with the effects of a traumatic brain injury which impaired her thinking skills and social behaviour, and her ability to manage her emotions. During drama workshops other students complained that the student often lost her temper and shouted at them, sometimes using offensive language, and sometimes using aggressive body language.
The course leader met with the student to discuss the concerns but she lacked insight into her difficulties and refused to acknowledge the other student’s concerns. She refused to attend a meeting under the provider’s support for study process or to attend an occupational health referral. The provider began disciplinary proceedings against the student and recommended that she go to the students’ union for support and advice.
The students’ union adviser persuaded the student to see her brain injury specialist. Following some specialist counselling the student gained a better understanding of her impairment. She attended a disciplinary meeting and explained the cause of her behaviour. She agreed to work with student support services, the course leader and her tutor to develop better coping strategies for managing her anger. Peer support was put in place to help her in social situations, and a system of prompts was developed so that others could alert the student when she was getting angry.
78 A disabled student may breach a provider’s academic misconduct regulations for reasons which may be unrelated to their impairment. Where academic misconduct proceedings take place, it is important for the provider to make reasonable adjustments to the procedures. For example, the provider should consider whether to make adjustments to any oral assessment relating to the authorship of a piece of work, and to panel interviews. The provider should also consider how best to support the student through the process.
79 If a disabled student is unable to meet the requirements of the course, with reasonable adjustments in place, consideration should be given to permitting an intermission on health grounds (where health is likely to improve). If the student declines to intermit it may be necessary to suspend their studies. The provider should agree with the student the period of the intermission or notify the student of the period of suspension. In each case the provider should set out the process for returning to study, and any conditions which might apply (for example, an occupational health assessment).
80 Where the student is unable to return to their studies at the agreed time the provider should consider whether or not it would be reasonable to extend the period of intermission or suspension, and for how long. The provider should draw the student’s attention to any time limits for completing the course, for example, limits set by professional bodies, and whether or not those time limits can be extended. If the student is not able to return the provider should write to them formally bringing their studies to an end.
Fitness to practise
81 Fitness to practise concerns may arise because of a student’s mental or physical health, behaviour, or ability to meet the required competences. Those concerns may not be related to the student’s impairment. Any fitness to practise concerns should be carefully documented and discussed with the student. Formal fitness to practise processes should be commenced if all else fails.
82 If fitness to practise concerns stem from an incident or series of incidents, and there is a dispute about what occurred, the student should be given a fair opportunity to respond to the accusations (for example, at a disciplinary hearing). The provider needs to reach a fair conclusion about precisely what occurred before it considers fitness to practise matters.
Completion of procedures
83 At the conclusion of any academic appeal, complaint, fitness to practise or support for study, or disciplinary procedure, the provider should write to the student setting out its decision. If the outcome is unfavourable to the student, it should be communicated to the student in writing by issuing a Completion of Procedures letter as soon as possible and within 28 days. 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.
84 If the outcome is favourable to the student, the provider should write to the student explaining the outcome, and explaining how and when it will implement any remedy. It is good practice to issue a Completion of Procedures letter if requested by the student. (Guidance Note regarding Completion of Procedures Letters.)