Complaints and Codes of Practice

In the post-Dearing era, the subject of 'complaints' is topical and inherently controversial. A recent conference addressing Complaints Management in Higher Educationand a report on complaints by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) published last month are symptomatic of the surge of interest in student complaints. Given the rising tide of litigation and wave of student complaints, institutions cannot afford not to take ccomplaints seriously. Without action, further cases are not just likely, they are inevitable (Hocking: 1997). The law of higher education is a serious business (Farrington: 1994, Palfreyman and Warner: 1997)

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAAHE) has been charged to develop 'a fair and robust system for complaints relating to educational provision.' Institutions, too, have been given two years to 'amend their arrangements for handling complaints from students to ensure that: they reflect the principles of natural justice; they are transparent and timely; they include procedures for reconciliation and arbitration; they include an independent external element; and they are managed by a senior member of staff. If they do not do so, the financial implications are frightening. For the purveyors of higher education such talk is tantamount to scare-mongering. As Lucy Hodges explains:

"With the following sentence, Sir Ron Dearing sent shivers down universities' spines: 'The funding bodies should be enabled to withdraw funding if the complaint is upheld and appropriate remedial action is not forthcoming."

(The Independent: 28th August, 1997)

Provided that institutions possess effective complaint procedures and provided Dearing's recommendations on quality assurance are implemented properly, the sector has nothing to fear. That is a big prooviso: 44% of institutions do not have complaints procedures (Farrington: 1996). At the same time, the development of codes of practice, student charters and so-called 'contracts' has reflected the changing climate whereby the student is viewed as a consumer of a quality product. Higher education institutions are increasingly aware of the need to deliver high-quality services, responding to the needs and demands of customers.

The QAAHE has a vital role in developing codes of practice to which institutions must subscribe as a condition of funding. The postgraduate code will be the first in a series of codes. Certainly, poweer is being divested in the hands of student stakeholders in a momentous way:

"Consumers, customers, stakeholders. Whatever word is used - and they are all pretty unattractive to the providers of higher education - power is moving their way...In short, higher education is nnow a large-scale service industry and customer care is moving up the agenda fast, however much such managerial expressions may offend those committed to traditional academic values...Times have changedd. Service providers who ignore the demands of their clients go bust."

(Anon: 1997)

The customer may always be right but there is a long way to go before students, especially postgraduates, are afforded equal rights in relation to both complaint procedures and codes of practice.

The Postgraduate Perspective: The Reality Behind the Rhetoric

There already exists an array of 'guidelines', 'codes' and 'handbooks' available to guide postgraduates through academic life (NPC: 1992, Blaxter et al: 1996, Cryer: 1996, HEQC: 1996, Greenfield: 1998). There are also more specific 'good practice guides' on the handling of 'complaints' (Citizen's Charter: 1995)and 'supervision' (Delamont et al: 1997). This article delves deeper beyond the theory and paints a practical picture of complaints from a postgraduate perspective. In so doing, it is provocative in daring to suggest that there are a host oof problems and parasitic student-system relationships out there. Increasing numbers of postgraduates are complaining about their courses - their content, teaching, marking or supervision. In fact, in a recent court case twelve postgraduates were awarded 2000 compensation for the 'bungled administration' of their course (McLaren: 1997). In another case, a PhD student issued a writ for damages exceeding 50,000 (THES: 1.8.97). Such is the harsh financial reality of a consumer society.

In utilising both primary data via questionnaire survey results and documentary evidence such an exercise can provide an illuminating real-world view beyond the grey rhetoric of the literature. It is cconcluded that, behind the theory that current systems of complaint are operating successfully, there exist a plethora of postgraduate problems which in practice symbolise systemic failures. If these postgraduate problems are left to fester in a climate of apathy and denial, there must be question marks over the future quality of postgraduate education. Postgraduates are used to working in isolatioon. Indeed, independence and original thought are the hallmark of postgraduate research. But it is altogether more worrying when postgraduate education as a whole is ignored by the academic and policy community (Gillon: 1997, Hinde: 1998). If the focus is applied to the subject of 'complaints' and 'codes of practice', postgraduates find themselves discriminated against further. As Dr Dennis Farrington - author of The Law of Higher Education- comments:

"There is a particular difficulty in the area of postgraduate appeals and complaints and I think that there would be merit in commissioning further work with the aim of producing explicit recommenddations in this field."

(Farrington: 1996)

There still exists an information and implementation deficit in the area of postgraduate complaints. There is a policy vacuum in many cases. Thus we have a growing body of disenchanted postgraduates wwho find themselves disenfranchised by the decision-making process as far as both complaints and codes of practice are concerned. 'Shut up and write up' is the traditional response from institutional aand vested interests. Postgraduates invariably find themselves whistling in the dark, pissing in the wind (A N Other: 1996). The fact that an increasingly vociferous band of postgraduates are making themselves heard speaks volumes for the efficacy and suitability of current channels of complaint.

Complaints in Practice: Internal and Infernal Complaints Procedures

Like much else in the realm of complaints and appeals, negotiating the gulf between rhetoric and reality is potentially hazardous for the student complainant. As an anonymous editorial concludes:

"In today's increasingly moralistic and controlling atmosphere, institutions that wish to retain control of their own policies need to make sure that everything they do will bear inspection. On complaints and appeals that is not yet the case."

(THES: 27.3.98)

The lack of publicity of existing complaint procedures is a particular worry. For example, a survey of over a thousand postgraduates conducted by the Union of Students and the Graduate Students' Associiation at the University of East Anglia (Laing: 1998) revealed that only 35% knew of the existence of the university's complaints and appeals procedures. This high level of ignorance - 65% - is alarminng and perhaps explains why out of 18% of postgraduates who said they had wanted to complain only 3% actually lodged a formal complaint. It is within these internal procedures that the degrees of freeddom and freedom of speech of the student are limited. Such is the logic of the 'internal complaints procedure' whereby complaints are systematically internalised. As Gerry Glyde, Advice Services Manaager at the University of Kent at Canterbury Students' Union, points out:

"Quite often it appears that postgraduates desist from making formal complaints during their course. This is to avoid confrontation with the limited number of academics that research students havee to work with."

There are also more structural reasons for the absence of student complaints though. Through 'internal complaints procedures' students are actively or tacitly discouraged from voicing concerns. Complaaints concerning inadequate supervision are unlikely to be taken up, for instance, if the first port of call for complaints is the supervisor or the head of the department who has the responsibility forr hiring, appointing and training supervisors. Institutions tend to couch this lack of publicity and democracy in disingenuous language:

"When you create a clearer means of complaint procedure you necessarily increase dramatically the number of complaints, and that costs money."

(Professor David Warner - co-author of Higher Education and the Law - as quoted in THES: 10.4.98)

Complaints are expensive to deal with and it is not surprising that a culture of compliance rather than one of complaint is fostered. In the present financial crisis, the complaints system is not only broke it is also broken. Keeping the lid on complaints can, however, only serve to accentuate bad practice and shield endemic failure from public view. Better to pay a little now that a lot later. ''Infernal complaints procedures' is a more apposite description of complaints systems in many insular institutions. Such 'too hot to handle' procedures can be found at the 'University of Armageddon' (http://www.misendencentre.co.uk/armuniv/). In some cases, the existence of complaint procedures which are not publicised is worse than none at all. Certainly, the quantity and quality of complaint procedures varies between institutions. Prreliminary results of a survey of UK Universities reveals that the major fault of complaints procedures lies in their lack of externality and hence objectivity. Unnecessary and protracted time delays aare also cited as evidence of 'infernal complaints procedures'. In any case, for many institutions, the systems currently in place for dealing with student complaints are a world removed from "efffective complaints systems" (Citizen's Charter: 1995) which should be:

  • easily accessible and well-publicised
  • simple to understand and use
  • speedy, with established time limits for action, and keeping people informed of progress
  • fair, with a full and impartial investigation
  • confidential, to maintain the confidentiality of both staff and complainants
  • effective, addressing all the points at issue, and providing an appropriate redress
  • informative, providing information to management so that services can be improved

Moreover, for postgraduates there is an important distinction to be made between 'complaints' and 'appeals' procedures. The difference between the two procedures is crucial when dealing with complaintss regarding 'supervision'. This is especially significant since 'supervision' is the biggest cause for complaint amongst postgraduates. In fact, the same survey at the University of East Anglia found that 61% of postgraduates cited 'supervision' as the main reason for complaint (Laing: 1998). As a protagonist points out:

"On the academic side, the area in which the largest number of institutions and the largest number of direct complainants identified problems is that of quality of teaching and supervision, with moost institutions listing this category mentioning supervision of research students as a particular problem area."

(Farrington: 1996)

Another survey of political science postgraduates revealed that 12% of postgraduates rated their supervisor as only 'fair' whilst a further 12% rated them as either 'poor' or 'abysmal' (Doyle and McGregor-Riley). These surveys suggest that in far too many student/supervisor relationships the support mechanisms provided by the institution, and thus the vital safety net to successful completion, is inadequate (Delamont et al: 1997). This is certainly backed up by more anecdotal evidence (McComb: 1997, Elliot-Major: 1997). The tendency for the freedom of speech of postgraduates to be restricted has important repercussions should they wish to lodge a complaint or appeal after the end of their studies. That is because,, according to the powers that be, if a complaint about supervision is not lodged before the end of their course it cannot be dealt with via the appeals procedure. As a result, complaints about inadequuate supervision slip through the net. The distinction between complaints and appeals procedures is thus an all-important one:

"The greatest problem lies in separating complaints from appeals, particularly at the postgraduate level. There appear to be numerous examples of cases in which students who have failed the oral eexamination for PhD or been recommended for the award of a lesser qualification have subsequently raised complaints about the nature and/or quality of supervision. The second (1987) Report of the CVCP Academic Standards Group suggested that given the existence of procedures for complaint and redress during the study period (which should normally be dealt with as and when they arise) alleged inadequacy of supervisory and othher arrangements during the period of study should not constitute grounds for appeal."

(Farrington: 1996)

In conclusion, a postgraduate must lodge a complaint about supervision in the first instance directly to his supervisor and then to the head of department, who hired, appointed and trained him. This coomplaint must be lodged before the student fails and more often than not before they realise the inadequacy of the quality or quantity of supervision. If they delay until after the viva voce the appealls procedure allows no scope for complaints concerning supervision. It is as simple and as difficult as that. Such is the logic of the 'infernal complaints procedure'.

Courts of Appeal: Courting Trouble?

Beyond the scope of internal complaints and appeals procedures there are further avenues of external complaint and appeal (NPC: 1995). For chartered universities that means appealing to the Visitor. Unfortunately (for students): "appealing to the Visitor can be too slow and too susceptible to the charge of favouring the univerrsity authorities" (THES: 27.3.98). In all too many cases the Visitor "has failed to provide anything like an adequate remedy" (NUS: 1997a). Other concerns include the fact that students are frequently unaware of their right to complain to the Visitor; the fact that students do not have recourse to the courts and cannot obtain state legall aid to take their case to the Visitor; and the fact that there is a clear lack of natural justice inherent in certain visitorial processes (NUS: 1997b). This court of appeal makes little appeal. As Dr Dennis Farrington confides:

"It is not the only difficulty with the Visitor system. Essentially the real problem is that the Visitor is a law unto himself/herself...There is no authority for compelling the Visitor to follow any set procedure in any given time-scale. I have seen an example of a student case against a chartered university taking years when if the student had attended a university only a few hundred yards aaway his case would have been disposed of through judicial review much more quickly. Any attempt to force the Visitor to act more quickly or to adopt different procedures would require leave to apply ffor judicial review and then a mandatory order, steps which could not lightly be undertaken without legal aid and for which it is doubtful that legal aid would be granted."
(Farrington, pers.comm)

Despite clarion calls to change the system "the Government has no plans to carry out such a review, nor has it any plans to seek to alter the existence, role, scope and jurisdiction of visitors" (Kempson, pers.comm). Such is the vassalage and vagaries of the Visitor system; a medieval system of justice that belongs in the Dark Ages (quite appropriate since those students who are forced to follow such a complaint course of action are kept in the dark and must wait ages). Again, in theory, such a procedure works effectively, is cheap, is quick and offers natural justice. In practice, however, it works only to serve institutional interests, costs a great deal in time and money and is only effective insofar as it shuts students up (Kingston: 1998). Moreover, Visitors have few written regulations and can throw out complaints on the often spurious grounds of 'academic assessment' (however arbitrarily defined). Students are playing by TINA's rulees in this case; there is no alternative.

Even less do chartered universities want to change a system that is firmly loaded in their favour and protects their vested interests. For students at non-chartered institutions the legal regime is morre clear-cut with avenues of appeal via the civil courts (Palfreyman and Warner: 1997). Nevertheless, there are caveats associated with any course of action, which involves losses in terms of time, money and academic reputation. A new report on student complaints by the CVCP promises tto deliver improvements and strengthen existing complaint procedures via 'arbitration' (Tysome: 1998). Steps by the CVCP to assign an increasing role to arbitration must be welcomed but the student's fundamental right of appeal to the civil courts or to the Visitor must not be taken away. Proposals by institutions to introduce 'student contracts' for which students would forfeit their right to external appeal do not augur well for the safe passage of natural justice (Meikle: 1997). The NUS, for one, feels that any system of external dispute resolution should not exclude ultimate recourse to the courts.

Codes of Practice: Closing the Net?

All complaints need not degenerate into 'infernal complaints procedures'. Prevention is surely better than cure. There are a number of proactive measures, which can be employed to treat the causes of postgraduate complaints and to avoid unnecessary costs to both the student and the institution. For the student, such a preventative policy can avoid the delays caused by prolonged complaints procedurres and the institution can benefit in terms of higher completion rates and lower financial costs associated with dealing with less complaints. It is a two-way relationship much like a marriage. In thhe same way as a marriage breaks down, there exist other advisory measures such as mediation and arbitration. The existence of an independent or external element, such as an ombudsman or mediator, is vitally important in upholding the rights of students and ensuring that both sides are represented fairly. Codes of Practice, too, can operate in conjunction with complaint procedures so long as the twwo are integrated into a coherent and accountable policy framework.

Complaints are inevitably going to become more frequent and more newsworthy. Obviously, for both students and institutions, it is much better to avoid them in the first place and keep them out of the ccourts. One solution is to close the loophole and introduce codes of practice with more explicit reference to complaint procedures. Ideally, complaints procedures and codes of practice should be integgrated into one document; a document which can be used as a frame of reference for both student advice and conflict resolution. Codes can also set thresholds for minimum standards of supervision, research training, progress monitoring, and research facilities. Most codes spell out the responsibilities for both students and their supervisors. Adopting a legalistic perspective, this document can be viewed as a contract between the student and the supervisor, the student customer and the institution. The QAAHE's forthcoming Code of Practice for Postgraduate Researchmust help plug the information and implementation gap. Certainly, an enforceable and accountable Code that goes beyond permissive guidelines is urgently needed:

"We need a framework within which institutions and departments can effectively operate rather than shielding behind codes of good practice and meaningless bureaucratic mechanisms that have little tto offer supervisors or their students."

(Burgess: 1997)

At a local scale, the NPC's Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research (1992) can be used on a departmental and postgraduate level to bolster and strengthen existing structures. All that is required is for a member of the board to place the topic on the agenda of the next committee meeting. Get elected on the board yourself if you feel strongly enough.

Whistling While You Work

Coming out of the complaints closet is never easy but there are several sources of assistance. For individual complaints, always consult your students' union as quickly as possible. Most will have advice units and an elected officer whose job deals specifically with complaints and appeals. Expert advice is essential at an early stage as there are often time limits within which complaints and appeals must be lodged. Always follow the procedures and the letter of the regulations. Where there is a lack of publicity surrounding existing complaint procedures or where there is a lack of procedures full stop there may be problems. Nevertheless, first consult your students' union and they will be best placed to assess the merits of your case and advise upon any complaint course of action. They mmay also be able to represent you and lobby on your behalf. As one student union adviser comments:

"As a direct representative of the fee-paying student body, the students' unions are in a position to lobby their institutions to provide simple, clear and standardised procedures for academic appeals and complaints."

(The Guardian: 14.10.97)

On a personal note, the advice is to look both forward towards successful completion and back to the cause of your complaints. At the same time, don't look back in anger; instead keep a historical and documentary record in case things irreconcilably 'fail'. Keep you head down, get on with your work by all means but don't let the system walk all over you.

Everyone has the right to complain. It is up to individuals, backed up by a well-resourced advice system, to exert those rights. If there are minutes of meetings, memos, photocopied correspondence andd specific evidence 'on file' there is at least a concrete frame of reference to use if necessary. Hearsay, uncorroborated evidence and unsub-stantiated allegations are not enough. Avoid plunging the depths of personal diatribe and pursuing vendettas. As an 'expert' comments:

"Some whistle-blowers become consumed by their cases and can destroy their lives in the process of seeking justice."

(Holden: 1996)

Far better to follow the guidelines to the letter of the law and play by the rules of the system. Before you blow the whistle be sure what your priorities, objectives and reasons for complaint are. Thhere's absolutely no point in causing trouble unnecessarily - so-called 'wolf whistling'. Once a formal complaint has been lodged there is often no going back. It should be remembered that:

"Whistle-blowing is risky ... Whistle-blowers can face reprisal, including dismissal...In higher education the risks intensify. Academic freedom may be at stake. Reputations of academics and insttitutions may be jeopardised."

(Feenan: 1996)

Despite these caveats, the practice of whistle-blowing is growing. It can reveal deficiencies and inadequacies in the system, which would have gone unnoticed otherwise. There is a steady cultural shifft from demonising to encouraging whistle-blowing. In theory, if a double-pronged strategy of complaints management and codes of practice is employed, the benefits will be felt by both the student and the institution. So much for the theory. Success or failure, there comes a time when the complainant must 'shut up and write up!' If you do choose to blow the whistle - whether before your course iss completed or in the aftermath - it may merely be the beginning of another chapter. Look back if you must, cover your back if you feel the need to, but at the same time be positive, be practical, be pragmatic.

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As part of this project on postgraduate complaints could you please send copies of your institution's complaints procedure and appeals procedure to: Don Staniford, 6 Buccleuch Terrace, Edinburgh, EH8 9ND or email: d.staniford@uea.ac.uk. Any documentation would be much appreciated and will be used to draft the NPC's forthcoming Guidelines on Complaints.

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References

Anon (1997) Need for standards cannot be ignored, THES, 27th June

A N Other (1996) Blowing the whistle on inadequate postgraduate supervision: whistling in the dark, pissing in the wind?, Praxis 33, 27-37

Blaxter L, Hughes C and Tight M (1996) How to research (OUP, Milton Keynes)

Burgess R (1997) The boom with no yardstick: postgraduate study needs a framework to deliver quality and standards THES, 16th May

Citizen's Charter (1995) The Citizens' Charter Complaints Task Force: Good Practice Guide HMSO, London

Cryer P (1996) The Research student's guide to success (OUP, Milton Keynes)

Delamont S, Atkinson P and Parry O (1997) Supervising the PhD: a guide to success (OUP, Milton Keynes)

Doyle H and McGregor-Riley V (1996) Political science: a look at the discipline from a postgraduate perspective, Politics 16 (2), 113-120

Elliot-Major L (1997) Relationship problems,The Guardian, 25th January

Farrington D J (1994) The law of higher education (Butterworths, London)

Farrington D J (1996) Research project on student complaints (HEQC, London)

Feenan D (1996) Whistling in the dark - staff must speak out in the public interest, THES, 26th July

Gillon E (1997) Sir Ron's forgotten legion, THES, 5th September

Greenfield T (1998) Research methods - guidance for postgraduates (Arnold, London)

Higher Education Quality Council (1996) Guidelines on quality assurance (HEQC, London)

Hinde J (1998) Lobby points to postgrad plight, THES, 27th February

Hocking S (1997) Time for action - universities must wake up to a new breed of litigious student, The Guardian, 18th March

Holden C (1996) Whistle-blower woes, Science 271, 35

Kingston P (1998) Building new bridges, The Guardian, 17th March

Laing K L (1998) Initial report from the survey of postgraduate research students (UEA Union of Students/Graduate Students' Association, Unpublished)

McComb J (1997) Problems of postgraduates and PhDs, Nature 387, 448

McLaren J (1997) Postgrads compensation after course fiasco, Gair Rydd, 17th November

Meikle J (1997) Student contracts planned, The Guardian, 28th January

National Postgraduate Committee (1992) Guidelines on codes of practice for postgraduate research (NPC, Troon)

National Postgraduate Committee (1995) Guidelines for the conduct of research degree appeals (NPC, Troon)

National Union of Students (1997a) Nolan report on local public spending bodies - interim report of the CVCP working group: response of the National Union of Students (NUS, London)

National Union of Students (1997b) National Union of Students response to the Dearing report on the future of higher education (NUS, London)

Palfreyman D and Warner D (1997) Higher education and the law (OUP, Milton Keynes)

Tysome, T (1998) Vice-chancellors respond to Nolan on student complaints, THES, 27th March