by Tim Brown
The National Postgraduate Committee is pleased to respond to this enquiry on the rules and procedures of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). We are encouraged to see a comprehensive set of guidelines to assist complainants in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). This will certainly make a vast improvement in the support and guidance offered to students and their respective representative bodies who have before received limited guidance. We do, however, have some minor comments on aspects of the text we have listed below and have also provided suggestions as to how we would amend some parts of the text. Should the OIA have any further enquiries, we would be more than happy to answer.
The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is a charity with the aim to advance, in the public interest, postgraduate education in the UK. 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.
Complaints on a final decision of a HEI's disciplinary or appeal body
In the points on what cases have grounds for complaint, it is noted that a complaint can be made over the final decision of a HEI's disciplinary or appeal body. At postgraduate level, particularly in the case of research degrees, we would stress the distinct difference between a complaint and appeal such that it is important that the two are distinguished. The grounds for complaint in this instance are to challenge the handling of a disciplinary or appeal case rather than challenging the outcome of the decision. In the case of a research degree viva examination, there is a thin line between challenging these two aspects where disagreement between the student and panel and how the panel acted towards the student overlap considerably. We would suggest as an alternative, "a dissatisfaction with the handling of the final decision of a HEI's disciplinary or appeal body" rather than "a final decision of an HEI's disciplinary or appeal body".
Advice on where to complain otherwise
While we see that it is clearly noted what complaints the OIA will not consider, we are concerned that the guide gives no indication as to how a student can complain externally in the given situations. This is particularly important in cases of admissions and the like where it is not always clear how a prospective student could complain, yet they can take up such a complaint with the institution in the first instance. Such guidance will help provide the best advice on how all students can pursue their complaints should they wish to.
Failure of an institution to complete internal procedures
On page 2 of the guide notes it states that should an HEI fail to respond to a complaint in good time, there is the possibility that the OIA will consider the case. We would encourage further guidance on where the OIA might consider such a case such as failure of the institution to keep to or produce a timetable of action, lack of communication from an institution explaining the time delay in a complaint being responded to or lack of receipt of any initial response within a given number of days. Such advice is important to the student where any unexpected delays that they are not weary of could severely corrupt or delay their academic progress.
Speed of response from a HEI
When a complaint is lodged, the HEI is required to produce a response as indicated on page 4 and point 2 of the guidelines, and in a number of other areas. However, it does not indicate what action the OIA may take should the HEI fail to respond within a reasonable time. We are concerned that HEIs have the freedom to abuse this and would not respond in sufficient time to the detriment of the student as a result of their disorganisation, negligence or even biased attitude. We would urge the OIA to reserve the right to take action on an HEI where they fail to act reasonably and indeed send a warning to that effect.
Awards of compensation
On page 5 and point 3 of the guidelines, it indicates that the OIA may advise that compensation be awarded to the complainant with the inclusion of an amount for inconvenience and distress. Our view of awarding compensation most importantly focuses on wasted expenditure in tuition fees and maintenance costs as well as potential detriment to future career. We would therefore recommend that the OIA states guidance to the effect that it can include compensation of such kind as indeed the Visitor of some institutions has awarded such compensation in recent days.
Appeals against an OIA decision
On page 7 of the guidelines it indicates that a complainant may appeal to the secretary of the OIA against the response to their complaint. Our concern here is the impartiality of the secretary and what position they are holding to ensure that difficulties do not arise in arbitrating the fairness and handling of a complaint. We do agree, however, that this matter should only be taken up with such a person if the complainant has not been able to resolve the matter informally with the Deputy Adjudicator.
Role of the Board
One final note we would suggest to include in the role of the board is to report regularly on the nature of complaints received and decisions made by the OIA to indicate how it responds to common issues raised. This will help ensure a transparent process to members of the board. We would also strongly recommend that the report indicates the demography of what students use the OIA (including postgraduate, mature and international students) and what particular subject area or level of study they are enrolled on.