What can a student complain about?
A complaint under this procedure is an expression of dissatisfaction by a student. If you are uncertain whether a student is making a complaint (as opposed to bringing an issue to the attention of a member of staff), you should explain that the University has a Student Complaints Procedure and ask the student if they wish to make a Stage 1 complaint.
A student may complain about:
- Services or facilities provided by the University i.e. teaching/academic facilities and services.
- The behaviour of staff relating to alleged misconduct or inappropriate behaviour.
- Student Support Services.
- Administrative Services.
- An alleged action or inaction by the University.
A student cannot submit a complaint about:
- Academic judgement
- Board of Examiners’ decisions i.e. progression, assessment and awards.
- Degree classifications
- Examination or assignment marks
- University Committee decisions e.g. academic offences, student conduct, academic appeals, fitness to practise.
Students should be referred to other relevant University procedures if appropriate, e.g. the Academic Appeals Regulations if they are seeking an academic outcome.
Students cannot use the Student Complaints Procedure to challenge the decision made under another University procedure.
If a student wishes to submit a complaint about another student’s behaviour, they may do so under the Conduct Regulations . If the allegations relate to sexual misconduct or a disciplinary offence which could constitute a hate crime (e.g. racism, homophobia, transphobia etc.), the student should be signposted to Student Wellbeing and/or Report and Support.
Where more than one procedure may apply, advice may be sought from Academic Affairs. The decision about which procedure should apply will be taken by the Director of Academic and Student Affairs.
Where the student’s complaint is about the behaviour of a member of staff, you should notify your HRBP in People and Culture. If in doubt, advice should be sought from People and Culture or Academic Affairs.
Who should the student complain to?
If the student has a problem with a University Service they should contact the Service directly.
If the student has an issue with the content of a lecture, or with a lecturer or member of staff within a School, then the student should raise the issue with the member of staff involved, or with the Head of School.
If the student has valid reason as to why they are unable to discuss the issues with the staff in the School or University Service, they may submit a formal Stage 2 complaint to the Head of Academic Affairs.
When the complainant is a student on a collaborative programme between the University and another institution, the collaborative agreement should normally state which complaints and appeals procedures the student can access. Students are usually expected to access their local institution’s complaints procedure in the first instance.
If the concern originates during a work or study placement, the student should raise the matter, in the first instance, with the member of staff at the workplace or institution in question who is responsible for the placement. Students sometimes find placements challenging and should be provided with support and assistance. However, where it is not possible to resolve the student’s concerns with the help of the member of staff responsible for the placement, consideration should be given to whether it is possible for the student to complete the placement or for another placement to be found. In certain cases, it may be necessary to terminate a student’s placement where the University has cause for concern about the issues raised by the student. In such cases, the relationship with the placement provider should be reviewed and appropriate steps regarding students’ safety should be taken.
The University’s Student Complaints Procedure cannot be used to pursue a complaint against an external body.
What exactly is at issue?
Some cases have to be “disentangled” - separating out the various strands can greatly simplify the investigation. For example, a personality clash or disappointment at a low examination mark may manifest itself in allegations of poor lecturing. It should also help to distinguish the facts (i.e. where the true position can be established) from rival interpretations of events, and to identify any misunderstanding on the part of the student or staff member.
In some cases, the investigation may simply involve establishing whether a particular procedure was correctly followed e.g. assigning CATS points, choice of Master’s projects, use of or access to University facilities etc.
Some students may view their failure in examinations or assessed work as evidence of bias or unfair treatment. In such cases, an explanation of assessment methods may dispel the perception of bias (e.g. anonymous marking, double marking, the role of the External Examiners). Otherwise, complainants should be asked to explain how they believe they have been treated unfairly.
If the nature of the complaint is not clear, the student should be asked to summarise the precise nature of the complaint and the outcome or redress sought. If it becomes apparent that a student is seeking an academic outcome, an academic appeal will normally be more appropriate, at least in the first instance (see Academic Appeals Regulations (Taught Programmes) and Academic Appeals Regulations (Postgraduate Research Programmes). You should make the student aware that strict deadlines apply.
The University will not normally invoke two procedures at the same time; however, where, for example, a student raises concerns about the teaching or conduct of a member of staff and also wishes to challenge an assessment mark, the student should be referred initially to the relevant Academic Appeals Regulations. Any residual concerns the student may have can be addressed under the Complaints Procedure at the end of the appeals process.
If you consider that a complainant has made any unsubstantiated or defamatory allegations or comments about other students, members of University staff or other persons, you may require the complainant to retract the allegation or comment before commencing an investigation.
If a student makes a complaint against a member of staff, advice should be sought from People and Culture at an early stage, before taking any steps or interviewing any party as, depending on the nature and seriousness of the complaint, it may be deemed more appropriate to deal with the matter under Performance Management or Staff Disciplinary procedures. Advice may be sought without disclosing the names of those involved or the details of the complaint, if necessary.
The student should be advised of the support available from Student Wellbeing and, if the allegations relate to sexual misconduct or a hate crime, referred to the Safe and Healthy Relationships Team (Report and Support)
- Complaint against a member of staff
If a student makes an informal complaint against a member of staff, it is advisable to contact HR for guidance on HR procedure. Advice may be sought without disclosing the names of those involved or the details of the complaint, if necessary.
Whether a complaint is made verbally or in writing, it is important for a record to be kept on the Student Complaint (Stage 1) Pro-Forma.
The student should be advised that this record will be taken and kept within the normal bounds of confidentiality and in accordance with Data Protection requirements. Notes should be made of any meetings with the student and all correspondence regarding the complaint should be saved to the student’s complaint file.
Should the student escalate their complaint to a formal Stage 2 complaint, the School will be asked to provide all of the Stage 1 complaint documentation (e.g. minutes, correspondence, and outcome letter).
The School or Service should record the details of every student complaint investigated at Stage 1 on the Student Complaints spreadsheet template provided by the Appeals and Complaints team. This information will be requested at the end of each academic year and Academic Affairs may request, for auditing purposes, to review the student complaint and any relevant documentation.
At the end of the Stage 1 process, students should be advised in writing that Stage 1 of the process has been concluded. The email/letter should also set out the terms of any resolution or agreement reached and advise the student of their right to submit a Stage 2 complaint if they remain dissatisfied, normally within ten working days of the stage 1 outcome, and refer them to the correct procedure and guidance.
Communication with the Complainant
It is important that the student:
- is provided with a copy of the Student Complaints Procedure and the Student Guide;
- is made aware of how the School or Service is investigating the complaint and given an estimated timeframe for the investigation;
- is kept informed if the investigation experiences any unforeseen delays;
- is advised what the next step is, should they be dissatisfied with the outcome of the relevant stage; and
- is advised of the support available from Advice SU and the Student Wellbeing Service.
It is good practice to write to the student following any initial discussion and to set out the nature of the complaint, the remit of the investigation (if an investigation is being conducted) and what, if anything, was agreed and to ask the student to confirm the accuracy of the record.
Stage 1 complaints should be attempted to be resolved within five working days and the decision communicated to the student in writing, again within five working days of the date of the decision. If there is a delay, the student must be advised.
Stage 2 complaint decisions should be communicated to the student within eight working days of the decision by the Faculty PVC/Director. Again, if there is a delay, the student must be advised.
The response to the student, regardless of the Stage, should indicate what action is proposed to resolve the complaint, or the reasons for not upholding it, and should advise them of their next steps if they remain dissatisfied.
Support and representation
Complainants should be advised of their right to be accompanied to a meeting or interview by a registered student of the University (including a Sabbatical Officer from the Students’ Union) or by a member of staff of the University (including a staff member from Advice SU) or University Chaplaincy at any stage in the procedure. The role of the person accompanying the complainant is one of support, not representation, and the student will normally be expected to present their own case.
A member of staff against whom the complaint has been made and who has been called to an interview or meeting in relation to the complaint, shall have the right to be accompanied and represented by a recognised Trades Union Official, a member of University staff or University Chaplaincy.
No party can be represented by another person in their absence.
Students should be advised that they can seek assistance and support from Advice SU.
If you have concerns about a student’s well-being or consider that the student may be vulnerable, you should seek advice from Student Wellbeing and/or refer the student to the Wellbeing Service.
Confidentiality and transparency
The complainant should be reminded of the importance of confidentiality and that the matter should not be discussed with other persons during or after the process so as not to compromise the impartiality or integrity of the process.
Students should be advised that all information provided will be treated by the University within the normal bounds of confidentiality and in accordance with Data Protection requirements.
Students should be advised that, at Stage 1, the person/s against whom they have made the complaint or any other person named by the student may be contacted in an attempt to resolve the matter; however, such persons will not be given information or documentation about other elements of the complaint which do not relate to them. If the student does not wish this to happen, you should discuss other options open to them.
Students should also be made aware that, at Stage 2, any person against whom a complaint has been made, or from whom a response may be required, may be contacted and will normally be permitted to see any allegations and evidence against them, including the Complaint Form and any documentation submitted by the student or anyone else in support of the complaint. However, the person against whom the complaint has been made or from whom a response is required will not be given information or documentation about other elements of the complaint which do not relate to them.
If a student does not want to disclose information, they should be made aware that this may result in the details of their situation not being taken into account during the investigation of the complaint.
The complainant should be told the name of the Investigating Officer and their role within the University, and the investigation should be as transparent as possible. All written evidence, including the response from the person against whom the complaint has been made and witnesses (including copy correspondence) should normally be copied to the complainant(s). However, in some cases it may be necessary to withhold or redact extracts of written documents, e.g. because disclosure would mean a breach of the Data Protection legislation. If in doubt, you should seek the advice of the Information Compliance Unit.
Anonymous complaints will not normally be investigated; although an investigation may be carried out if deemed appropriate. Complaints from third parties may, exceptionally, be considered if the complainant has confirmed in writing that the third party is acting on their behalf, that they want the complaint to be investigated and they have given a valid reason for not being able to pursue the complaint on their own behalf.
A complaint submitted by one student (the Lead Student) as representative of a group of named students, where the issue/s raised is the same or substantially the same in each case, will be accepted and investigated in accordance with the Student Complaints Procedure. The Lead Student must provide evidence that they are acting on behalf of and with the consent of the other named students.
Checklist for staff dealing with Student Complaints
- For Stage 1 complaints, has the student expressed clear dissatisfaction or concern (ie, is the student making a complaint or are they simply bringing something to your attention)?
- Has the student clearly presented a prima facie case, or have they made unsubstantiated allegations? (see 2.1 of the Student Complaints Procedure)
- Has the student been provided with a copy of (or a link to) the Student Complaints Procedure and the Student Guide?
- Has the Student Complaint Procedure, including confidentiality, been explained to the student?
- Has the student made an allegation of inappropriate, bullying, harassing or discriminatory behaviour against a member of staff? If so, you should contact Human Resources. You should also explain to the student that they may submit a report via Report and Support and that support is available from Student Wellbeing
- Is another University procedure more appropriate?
- What is the complainant hoping to achieve? Is this realistic / possible? If it is not realistic / possible, the student should be advised and expectations managed appropriately.
- Was the student treated differently to other students in the same situation? Is there a precedent that can be quoted? Are there comparators?
- Was there a communications breakdown? Were students given appropriate and timely advice as to what they should expect? If all students were given written advice, then this should be pointed out and quoted, if necessary.
- Did the student receive feedback on his/her assessed work? Detailed and timely feedback should help the student to understand the reasons for a disappointing mark, but conversely a lack of feedback or a refusal to discuss a mark may lead to a complaint or an appeal.
- Was the relevant regulation or procedure followed? If so, it should be quoted.
- Does the student have special circumstances that colleagues might have been unaware of (e.g. disability, health problems, domestic or financial pressures)?
- Are there other circumstances which investigators should bear in mind? (e.g. it may not be desirable to investigate a complaint during an examination period. If so, the complainant should be advised accordingly and kept updated.)
- Was the student treated with insufficient courtesy, or was the complaint not taken seriously, e.g. because the student was perceived to be a weak student? Note: you should seek the student's permission before accessing confidential information (e.g. a student's academic profile), if the relevance of this information is not immediately apparent.
- Was there any acknowledgement of fault, or the need for redress? Is an apology appropriate or sufficient?
- Have other students complained about the same issue? Have any other students been affected by the same issue? Has it been raised as an issue at a Student-Staff Consultative Committee, or during module or programme review? For Stage 2 investigators, was there undue delay in dealing with the complaint at local level?
- Have all the facts alleged by the complainant been investigated? Have they been substantiated?
- Has all the available information (including email correspondence, minutes of meetings, Student Handbooks, policies and regulations etc) been considered?
Please note: the above list is not exhaustive.
Complaints upheld - redress
When a complaint is upheld, either partially or in full, an acknowledgement and a suitable apology may be enough to satisfy the student. However, if the student has suffered a detriment and matters cannot easily be rectified, then suitable redress should be considered. In such cases, staff are urged to seek advice from the Head of School or Director of Service who in turn may consult the Director of Academic and Student Affairs. The Director of Academic and Student Affairs should also be consulted when the redress may have academic implications (e.g. for the student's progression).