Universities – know your rights

5 min read
October 08, 2014

With a new intake just starting at university, we take a look at how you can complain about a higher education institution

Alma Mater Europaea University Graduation Ceremony. Maribor, Slovenia, 12 March 2013

Educational pains 

As fresher’s week starts in universities around the county, it seems appropriate to talk about what you can complain about in higher education, and how you can do it.

There were over 20,000 complaints against universities last year – a 10% increase over the year before – with £2 million paid out in compensation over three years. This may not sound a lot when you consider how many students are studying around the UK, but complaining about your university is a relatively new concept.

Since students are now paying over £9,000 per year in tuition fees alone, they are becoming more aware of value for money and increasingly see themselves as consumers who are paying for a service.

A life less painful 

Students going to university are also often thrown in at the deep end of adult life, having to manage money, issues and complaints. To help ease this process Resolver, together with the Financial Ombudsman Service and Ombudsman Services, have teamed up to create a media campaign across student union television screens to make sure students are aware of where to turn and what to do if something is not right.

But what might a student have to complain about (other than the price of alcohol and takeaways? Well, common consumer problems faced by students include dealing with the temptation of payday loans, issues with landlords, energy and telecoms bills. Resolver – and the ombudsmen – is there to make dealing with these problems for the first time an easier, less painful process.

What if the issue is against the university itself?

Universities should have an internal complaints process, which must be followed. However, if the issue cannot be resolved, there is an independent assessment process. In England and Wales this is the Office of Independent Adjudication and for Scotland it is the Public Services Ombudsman.

Prior to being able to send a complaint to these bodies, the internal complaints process must have been completed. At the end of this process, the university will provide a letter that refers the student to the independent appeals process.

Like other ombudsmen, the role of the adjudication is then to look at the complaint independently and to provide a judgement.

All complaints must be made within three months of the final communication from the university.

What can you complain about?

Universities are delivering a service and, like any product or service, you can reasonably expect it to be of good quality. The issues that can be independently assessed include:

• Services provided by the university
• Teaching and facilities (this is the most commonly complained-about topic)
• Student accommodation and welfare
• Discrimination, welfare, bullying and harassment
• Maladministration
• Procedural irregularities or unfair practices
• Fitness to practice

What you cannot complain to the university about

Whilst you have the right to complain to universities, there are certain topics where there is not an appeals process:

• Admissions
• Academic judgement
• Student employment
• Issues already considered by the Courts

Top complaining tips for students

1. keep a written record

Record all information you send or receive and all phone calls you make, including details of who you spoke to and when – the Resolver process will help you with this. If you cannot resolve your issue, you are going to need documented evidence to take the next step. When first raising an issue, it’s often tempting to hope the issue will be resolved quickly and simply, so we often can’t be bothered to keep records when making a complaint about a company.

2. keep calm and carry on!

We can become frustrated and angry when dealing with companies, either because they don’t understand or listen to your issue, or by the way they handle your complaint. So, always stay calm, as your anger can be used against you, and in the worst case it may mean not dealing with your complaint.

3. know what you want

Why are you making a complaint? It’s important to know what you want and what outcome you will be satisfied with. Be fair and be reasonable: if you’re just missing a screw, don’t ask for a new wardrobe. Be sure to ask for what you want.

4. know what you should expect

Know what to expect and what are your rights are. Companies will often want to pay you out no more than absolutely necessary and will give you a low starting number for compensation.

5. be clear and concise

The worst thing you can do is to give excessive detail. You may be outlining all your points and issues, helping prove the validity of your claim and what you want solved. But while information is invaluable and helps you explain why you are annoyed, don’t go too far.

6. be reasonable

Companies can sometimes have a hard time, as we can also be unreasonable with our expectations. It is important to be reasonable with what you want and focus on resolving the problem – not prolonging the complaints process.

7. know when to escalate your complaint

Complaining should not be a war of attrition, but about resolving and getting what is right. If you cannot resolve the issue and need to escalate it, this demonstrates you have been reasonable and fair. If you have been too gung-ho in your approach, this can be held against you.

8. remember they need you!

It’s more expensive to find new customers than it is to keep existing ones. If you have been with a company for a long time, then they have made good money from you. If they are sensible, they know that it’s worth keeping you as a customer. 

9. don’t give up

If you’re not getting what you want, sometimes the pressures of life can mean we forget about the issue and let it go, simply because we don’t have time to deal with it.

10. have a sense of humour

Have some fun. Remember the person who you are emailing with/speaking to/writing to is a consumer as well and probably has to deal with lots of issues a day. This must get frustrating and tiring for them, so why not change approach and inject some humour and fun into your complaint?

Next time: 
Housing associations – what to do if you are dissatisfied and how you should handle the issue

For a simple, easy way to complain about more than 1,500 companies across 60 services, go to www.resolver.co.uk
or download the iPhone app. If you have a case and need some advice on how to complain, contact james@resolver.co.uk

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