Student treatment & 10 tips on how to make a complaint

I was sat listening to a friend about a bad experience.  She wasn’t happy.  “I can’t believe they treated me like that,” she said.  “It’s crazy.  Like they couldn’t care less about my situation.”

“Wow. Sounds awful.  What are you going to do about it?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Nothing.  What’s the point?”

Most of us like to complain, but we hardly ever make our complaints official.  People don’t like to make a fuss, it seems.

Or they’re scared.

Or disenchanted.

Or a mixture of all these things.

photo by Katie Tegtmeyer

photo by Katie Tegtmeyer

However, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) has reported that student complaints are on the up.  There are now over 1,000 complaints a year, compared with 537 in 2005.  Around 80% of those complaints were eligible for review, but the majority of those cases were not considered justified.

Regardless of eligibility and justification, the 1,007 complaints come from just 0.05% of the total number of students (1 complaint for every 2,000 students).  The numbers are tiny.  But, as The Guardian mentions, “The real number of dissatisfied students is likely to be several thousands more”.

For every student that complains, others will keep quiet (at least officially).  Some people will be angry, some surprised, and others thoroughly upset.

Of those students who initially complained to their university and were turned down internally, some do not take the matter beyond that.  As with any type of complaint, the few who do tackle it will trickle away further until only a tiny proportion remain at the end.

The BBC explains that by the time they have gone through internal complaints procedures, “students can be ‘seriously disenchanted’ by the time they contact the adjudicator”.  All this means that the number of complaints to the OIA don’t paint a full picture.  It takes tremendous will and spirit to soldier on until you’ve exhausted all avenues.

Complaining also takes time.  NUS is looking for universities to speed up internal complaints processes, putting a limit on the amount of time taken between the initial complaint and its outcome.

The rising number of complaints needs to be dealt with, regardless of how many end up being justified.  In the minds of those students, including the silent ones, a complaint is a complaint.  The vast majority are not chancers; they entirely believe their case to be worth fighting.  David Willetts, the universities minister, wants to see “universities publishing clearer and more consistent information to students”.  In an age where we expect much from a university experience, we need to be aware of our entitlements, what will be provided, and how best to complain if expectations have not been met.

If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly, don’t suffer in silence.  Here are 10 tips for making a complaint:

  1. Treat any complaint professionally.  It’s easy to fly off the handle, but that won’t help your cause.  Stay calm at all times.
  2. Seek advice and support from staff and your Students’ Union.  You don’t need to suffer alone and you may find out how to present your case on the best terms.
  3. Be clear about the nature of your complaint and make sure you can summarise it quickly and succinctly.
  4. Gather up all information and evidence in a file.  Keep hold of anything you think could be important.  You may not want to use it later, but it’s best to have too much evidence than not enough.
  5. Create a timeline, if applicable.  Log all future developments as you go along.
  6. If formal evidence is required, be sure to obtain it and submit it.  Anything you leave out will slow down the process and, even worse, could jeopardise your complaint.
  7. Always submit copies of evidence, not the original.  In the rare case that original documents are specifically required, make copies for your own files.
  8. Do as much as you can in writing.  Don’t accept verbal statements, especially when it’s an important matter.  Keep a note of any phone calls you make or receive.
  9. Complete all aspects of the university’s internal complaints and appeals procedures.  The OIA cannot accept a complaint if you haven’t exhausted all internal processes.
  10. Stay focused, but don’t obsess over it.  Official complaints are always stressful, so don’t let it take over your life.  You need to be organised and in control, but remember to have some down time to relax and deal with the rest of your life.