‘Universities can’t afford to ignore the growing number of complaints’

Susan Matthews, a principal associate at Weightmans, says universities must do better to use complaints to undertake comprehensive, cross-departmental improvements

Latest data from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) found that complaints from students in England and Wales about their university courses reached a record high last year. 

Through our extensive work with universities, we have also seen that these complaint investigations are becoming increasingly complex and present further challenges for university staff. 

Unsurprisingly, the cost of complaints to the OIA also increased during this time. It reports the overall total financial compensation awarded in 2021 was £1,304,379, significantly higher than in previous years. This has been particularly prevalent during the last two years, which is reflected in more than a third of the 2,763 complaints during the last year relating to the impact of the pandemic.

The OIA Annual Report 2021 is a useful barometer for universities and those in the legal profession who work with the higher education sector of student complaints. It highlights the most common areas of concern and can help shape effective responses to these issues and the basis from which strategies around student complaint handling are determined.

Ultimately, the report shows how we can help to reduce the number of complaints, and therefore the number of claims. 

An opportunity for reform

There are many reasons for higher education institutions to invest in new approaches to student complaints. 

Firstly, the OIA figures are not the true cost of complaints. You also have to consider the significant use of staff time spent responding to student grievances before they become formal complaints and the wider administrative burden.

The reputational cost can also be significant. Dissatisfaction often spreads through word-of-mouth, as well as in surveys, on social media, and potentially outside the university’s community. 

A comprehensive system of complaints handling can also help to bring multiple departments together to work more holistically. As universities are often very complex organisations, it can be difficult for staff to navigate successfully across campus and help get the best response for students to avoid escalation. 

And, the OIA has shown that their cases of complaints are increasing, with no sign of this slowing down in 2022 due to the widespread industrial action across the sector. Universities can’t afford to ignore this problem. 

How to improve student satisfaction and reduce complaints

Although never pleasant to receive, complaints can be one of the most useful tools for improving overall student satisfaction. By hearing first-hand the issues that students are most affected by, universities are better able to determine their student satisfaction policies and initiatives. 

There is a real opportunity for universities to make a positive change for their students. 

Some examples of the tactics that can be used include, training staff to act as early responders to complainants, devising a mechanism to facilitate prompt cross-campus responses to issues raised, reviewing processes and procedures and empowering key staff to facilitate early resolutions where possible. Of course, much depends on the structure of the institution, but in many cases, some, or all, of these options contribute to a positive change. 

Focus on early intervention

As mentioned earlier, reacting to potential complaints early is key to reducing student grievances. We currently work with a number of universities on early response strategies, including advising on formal complaints handling, conducting investigations and providing reports on emerging themes of dissatisfaction that need improving across campus, or the wider higher education community. 

Changing the narrative to make the student an active participant in a discussion, rather than a potential complainant, can also help to avoid an issue escalating into a full complaint or claim. 

It is unlikely that a university will be able to mitigate the risk of complaints entirely, but the potential cost of not taking a holistic and early-stage approach can be costly and is only set to become more so if action isn’t taken now. 

Susan Matthews is a principal associate at the national law firm Weightmans.

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