by Tim Brown
Proposals to introduce an open and public complaints system for the benefit of students is warmly welcomed by the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) Scotland, following efforts south of the border by NPC in this regard for student complaints in higher education. It is our concern, however, how the Scottish Ombudsman will implement complaints procedures and who will be involved. We strongly urge the Scottish Executive to create a dedicated office for student complaints as we do not consider complaints in higher education to be dealt with in a similar manner to that of complaints against other public services. This will not hold parity with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator that will soon be established south of the border and so we wish to see formal links made there. It is our concern that issues similar to that of the medieval Visitor system, which is subject to abolishment in England and Wales are not found operating with the Scottish Ombudsman, which we feel in some instances could happen.
The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is a charity with the aim to advance, in the public interest, postgraduate education in the UK. Further to this we have a subcommittee, NPC Scotland to deal with matters concerning postgraduates within Scotland. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated student representative bodies from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers' unions as well as other bodies relevant to postgraduate education.
1. Are existing arrangements and local procedures for investigating complaints about further education colleges and higher education institutions effective?
Our experience has been that for research degrees in particular the internal complaints procedures lack accessibility, transparency and fairness at the departmental level to resolve any disputes at an early stage before further non resolvable difficulties arise. The complexity of such cases when it is a matter between two individuals, the student and the supervisor, will rarely get resolved unless there is something in place to deal with the matter at an earlier stage. This will require effective and well informed complaints procedures at local level and institutional level for both the student and supervisor so that they will be applied for their intended purpose.
We also express our concern for other taught postgraduates, where our experience has been that for international students in particular, there can be difficulties with understanding and using the complaints system should they need to. It is also important to note issues relating to postgraduates undertaking intensive work placements as part of their training such as those enrolled for Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE). In such circumstances, it should be considered what complaints procedure applies to while they are on placement as an employee and while they are in their institution as a student. There is a need for transparency in both these circumstances.
2. Would there be value in giving the Executive or the Ombudsman a role in ensuring a certain level of consistency across institutions and what might this role entail?
In the past, NPC has certainly campaigned for the need to have consistency across institutions in terms of how complaints are dealt with externally, which has not been possible to achieve under the jurisdiction of the Visitor, who is not required to keep any record of complaints lodged. We welcome the opportunity that will arise from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)  to see all external complaints in England and Wales handled centrally. We also welcome the idea that the independent adjudicator will have a role of reviewing the internal complaints of higher education institutions to help them to improve their internal procedures with the hope of reducing the number of complaints that reach them. In light of this we would also encourage a similar system to exist in Scotland, which will help facilitate consistency through experience of good practice.
We would stress, however, that the role of the Scottish Ombudsman in this instance could overlap partly with the role of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) who do produce codes of practice on complaints and appeals for both taught and research programmes in higher education  . Further to this the code of practise for research degree programmes is undergoing re-writing, which NPC is heavily involved in. It will therefore also be part of the role of QAA Scotland in their enhancement led reviews to consider the accessibility, openness and relevance of complaints procedures to the individual student. It is therefore advisable from our perspective that procedures are reviewed by the QAA and that complaints that arise are reviewed by the Scottish Ombudsman.
4. Views are invited on the Executive's plan to give the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman powers to investigate complaints about provision at Scotland's HEIs.
While we see this as an opportunity to allow students to seek a means to exercise their rights externally once they have exhausted the internal complaints; in light of the problems we have seen south of the border with the medieval Visitor system there are concerns we will stress. From discussion amongst members of NPC Scotland, it is of concern to us that the expertise of the ombudsman will be limited if complaints against a higher education institution are considered on the same level as complaints against other public services. Further to this it is also questioned as to who within the office will take responsibility for student complaints. We would wish to see that individuals are appointed with the appropriate expertise (and opportunity to develop their expertise) to handle complaints in higher education. Further to this we are unhappy with the means by which complaints can be petitioned to the Ombudsman and wish to see clear indications on the website with clear grounds for complaint and appropriate mechanisms for making a complaint as a student.
The implementation of a specific office for the Ombudsman will create a system that has parity with England and Wales. We have no problem with a separate office existing in Scotland to deal with student complaints although we do urge that there are formal links made with the independent adjudicator so that consistency in how complaints are handled is ensured both sides of the border while still allowing for any discrepancies that will occur for interpreting complaints procedures under the Law of Scotland.
6. Should matters of academic judgment be excluded from the Ombudsman's remit?
We strongly agree with this proposal as we identify the distinct difference between appeals and complaints at postgraduate level to be identified and handled by separate procedures .
7. Should the Ombudsman have powers to investigate procedural matters associated with academic appeals?
Our experience has often been that there is need for complaints against procedural matters on academic appeals to be contested by means of a complaint. We would therefore support this to protect the interests of the student. It is also likely to be the case following an outcome of an appeal the student may realise they were not provided with an acceptable service, such as appropriate supervision, tutoring or advice that led to unsuccessful examination outcomes.
8. Any further comments
The final note we feel is that extending the process of complaints to the Scottish Ombudsman will have ease of implementation and also economic benefit so we can see reasons for this approach. While there may be extra expenditure involved in enhancing the internal infrastructure to dedicate support to student complaints, we do feel that in the long term this will have significant benefit. Our reasoning for this is that there is opportunity for institutions to improve their internal procedures such that there is decreased workload on the Scottish Ombudsman long term and likewise costs are likely to decrease rather than increase. We strongly urge the Scottish Executive to take the approach that all measures are taken to avoid the need for students to complain externally rather than introduce the ombudsman on the assumption that complaints do exist and will increase.
Another issue we are heavily concerned about is the need to ensure complaints are addressed with a timely approach, where the Visitor clearly failed in this regard. We therefore request that it is ensured the Scottish Ombudsman will have the means to undertake a swift turnaround to ensure academic progress is not severely impeded on the students behalf by waiting many months for a response.
Finally we would like to draw your attention to a publication recently produced although containing information from UK wide research carried out in 1997 by the NPC and the University of East Anglia Union of Students . This report will help to illustrate the informality, inconsistency and inaccessibility of student complaints that were in existence at the time. We see this publication as a helpful reference from which the improvement and reform of student complaints can be identified.
- QAA Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes, Section on Feedback, Complaints and Appeals, http://www.qaa.ac.uk/public/COP/cop/guid7_12.htm#feedbck
- QAA Code of Practice on Academic Appeals and Student Complaints on Academic Matters, http://www.qaa.ac.uk/public/COP/COPappcomp/contents.htm
- D. Staniford, T. W. C. Brown, "Complaints in Practice: Complaints in Crisis", National Postgraduate Committee, 2003, http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1074001547.pdf
- Office of the Independent Ajudicator, http://www.oiahe.org.uk.