Recent headlines have shone a light on student complaints, following a 3% increase in complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). Justified or not, complaints take up time. And there are no easy, off-the-peg solutions. We don’t have a magic wand, other than tech that speeds up marking. Let’s look at how best to reduce the number of formal complaints in the first instance. Can we build a culture where students and academics work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and shared endeavour?
Recent headlines have shone a light on student complaints, following a 3% increase in complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA):
Headlines like those above provide a snapshot rather than the bigger picture, however. It is worth remembering that most of England and Wales’s 2.5 million students report positive experiences, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey. Student perceptions of value for money and other key indicators have, in fact, shifted positively towards pre-Covid levels, with 35% of respondents reporting “good” or “very good” value for money, a significant improvement from 27% the previous year.
Furthermore, some of the complaints to the OIA are explained by the post-Covid return to exams. Complaints about the academic appeal of assessments and grades went up from 29% in 2021 to 38%. The OIA explained: “This rebalancing of our caseload is likely to reflect the end of the ‘no detriment’ or safety-net policies that had been in place during the pandemic and had resulted in fewer appeals, as well as the reduction through the year in the number of complaints related to COVID-19 disruption.”
The pandemic, however, still accounted for a quarter of complaints.
In contrast, complaints about teaching, course delivery, and supervision fell from 45% to 38%.
It’s also worth adding that only 1 in 4 complaints were ultimately deemed “justified”, “partly justified”, or settled in favour of the student.
Justified or not, complaints take up time. And there are no easy, off-the-peg solutions. We don’t have a magic wand, other than tech that speeds up marking—more of that later. As academics ourselves, we’ve seen how the marketization of higher education has changed things irrevocably, creating a consumer mindset, in some at least: education or learning as something you buy and then passively receive, like a holiday or a new sofa.
Let’s look, however, at how best to reduce the number of formal complaints in the first instance. Just how can we build a culture where students and academics work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and shared endeavour?
Make the most of personal tutors
Staff-student relationships are the bedrock of any institution and trained, informed personal tutors are imperative.
Tutors wear many hats. They are customer relations officers, chief explainers, and the first port of call when a student has concerns about something. Acting as a filter or sorting system, they are not necessarily there to fix problems so much as to source information or solutions such as course documentation online, student representative bodies, student advisers, advocacy services, a disability support team, welfare, or medical support.
Often, all a student needs to do is raise concerns. They don’t want to make a formal complaint. They just need to ask questions, air a grievance, and feel heard.
Students should feel that their tutor has their back; they aren’t simply there to defend the university. The tutor is then well placed, as a trusted confidant, to pick up on any issues that a student might have.
An open and transparent culture where tutors and academic advisers are accessible, with office hours pinned to doors, reduces the likelihood of complaints. Complaints often happen when the distance grows between a student and an institution or when relationships break down between students and lecturers. In other words, when students start to feel like customers or consumers rather than learners.
Explain procedures and manage expectations
Tutors are there to explain and manage expectations. Sometimes an explanation of how things are done and why can quickly de-escalate an issue.
It is easy to forget how alien the world of academia can feel to undergraduates. No one is born with the knowledge of how marking and moderation procedures work. The information is out there, however. A tutor simply has to point out where or explain it in person.
Identify unstated needs hiding behind complaints
A complaint may mask the desire to address other needs or concerns. For example, a complaint about how lectures are delivered may come down to accessibility issues, while a complaint about marking may be the means of flagging up academic difficulties, a cry for help, in other words, or, in some instances, an attempt to shift responsibility or blame.
Academic appeals, including grades, accounted for 38% of the complaints made to the OIA.
We’d make the case that confidence in marking from the outset greatly reduces the likelihood of complaints down the line. Graide ensures detailed feedback at scale, enabling early intervention. It also allays concerns about bias in grading as work can be marked anonymously.
For more on speeding up the marking process, read How to spend less time grading
And other technologies can help. “Predictive analytics” joins the dots to identify those most at risk of falling behind with their studies in good time. Data include:
· attendance rates
· library use
· coursework submission
Early detection can forestall the need for escalation.
Engage the student voice
Provide easy means for student feedback.
And use this to build two-way dialogue across multiple channels:
· Social media
Seek feedback and make full use of it. For example, keep a close eye on student satisfaction through feedback surveys, both internally and externally. The National Student Survey - NSS gathers students’ opinions on the quality of their courses with a view to informing prospective students’ choices and providing data that supports universities and colleges to improve the student experience.
For more on student's voice, read Top tips for engaging the student voice | British Council
Act on feedback when appropriate
It isn’t desirable or even possible to change policies or procedures every time dissatisfaction is expressed. That said, some issues will arise that need addressing, and that might mean making changes in terms of policies or providing additional resources or support to students.
Again, communication is key. To ensure some sense of resolution or closure, it is important to communicate any changes to the student body. As the OIA Good Practice Framework - Handling complaints and academic appeals puts it, be seen to be “putting things right”.
For more on improving student experience, read Improving student learning, retention, and Access in STEM Subjects | Graide
And if you’re interested in how we speed up the marking process, read How our artificial intelligence engine works | Graide