This step-by-step guide will equip you with the knowledge, tools and courage to complain about poor service and receive compensation from your uni.
If you buy a new laptop which promises super fast speeds, but take it home to find it’s slower than a snail, you’d go back to the store and ask for some compensation, right? Well it only makes sense that you should be able to do the same with your degree.
After all, when you’re paying a hefty £9,250 a year for your course, you expect the service you’re receiving to be up to scratch. And you’re not alone in thinking so.
The number of students making complaints to their university is on the rise – in 2017, 1,635 students complained and received a whopping £650,000 in compensation.
And in 2018, hundreds of students demanded compensation after lecturer strikes led to them losing contact hours.
So if you think you’ve got a legitimate grievance with your uni, don’t just sit on it. Follow our steps to submit a complaint and you could receive hundreds in compensation!
11 steps to making a successful complaint
Try to come to an informal solution
Making an official complaint to your university can be a long and stressful process, so if possible you should look into resolving it informally first.
Try speaking to your personal tutor or another person in a position of authority who might be able to act on your behalf and resolve the situation for you. This will be much quicker and more straightforward than putting together a formal case and letter.
Your university will also probably expect you to try this before submitting an official complaint.
Wise up on your uni’s complaints policy
Every university has a different way of dealing with student appeals and complaints, so the first thing is to read through your own university’s internal policy.
You should be able to find it online pretty easily – try Googling something like “X university complaints policy” (bet you weren’t expecting that one!).
For example, The University of Manchester outlines their procedure here by way of a flow chart. If you can’t find your university’s policy online, speak to Student Services.
Be aware that your university may have a certain time period in which you have to submit your complaint after the incident takes place to make it valid, so don’t hang about!
Know what you’re complaining about
The next step is to have a clear idea of exactly what your complaint concerns. This might sound obvious, but taking a bit of time to narrow your complaint down to a few brief key points will work wonders. You’ll need to be specific but concise, and have good examples and evidence to back it up.
Technically speaking, you can make a formal complaint or appeal about anything that’s got your back up and over which the university has some control. However, only go down this road if you’re 100% serious and feel that other students could benefit from changes being made, otherwise you’re just wasting their time and yours.
Some of the most popular reasons for legitimate or successful complaints relate to:
• Poor facilities and learning resources
• Student accommodation
• Cancellation of university courses
• Cancellation of timetabled tutoring
• Discrimination or harassment
• Cheating or plagiarism allegations
• Marking of degree assessments.
You can’t submit a complaint for something that comes down to ‘academic judgement’ – for example, if you’re unhappy with a mark or grade you’ve received. Your university should have a separate appeals procedure for this.
However, you can make a complaint about poor teaching or malpractice which led to you receiving a bad mark.
Check the CMA’s Rights for Students
Since March 2015, the CMA (Consumer and Marketing Authority) have started regulating how universities comply with consumer law.
They provide a document with some rules and regulations for unis to follow, so it’s worth checking if your complaint is in breach of any of these (if it is, you’ve got a good case!).
The CMA have warned universities across the UK that many are in breach of basic consumer laws, and have advised unis to pull their socks up or face legal action.
Know what you want
What do you actually want to get out of this process? Do you simply want somebody to recognise that they’ve behaved irresponsibly and apologise? Or are you seeking a tuition fee discount or cash settlement?
It’s important to consider this, as the process could turn out to be quite time-consuming. Put together some clear demands that you believe would compensate you fairly.
If you’re asking for monetary compensation, then it must be reasonable, realistic and justifiable. There are no guarantees, but if you don’t ask…
Collect the evidence
You’ll need to present a convincing case against the relevant parties (e.g. a tutor or department, or the university itself) by gathering some credible evidence.
This could include any emails or written direct communication you’ve had, photographs or videos of incidents (if appropriate) or statements from witnesses or professionals (e.g. your doctor).
Also look at what you signed up to. When you registered as a student you will have likely signed a student contract which outlines what your university’s responsibilities are – if they’re in breach of that, you’ve got a strong case.
Use your resources
You don’t have to go it alone, there are people whose job it is to help you out!
Start with your student union. Get hold of student advisers, representatives, councillors and anybody else with valuable experience when it comes to knowing about the university’s complaints system.
Perhaps your parents might be able to help, or you know some law students who are ace at presenting cases. Then of course, you’ve got the whole internet at your disposal.
(Note: if you want to make a complaint about your student union, there will be a separate complaints procedure for this, normally outlined on the union website).
Submit your formal complaint
Now you’ve done your homework and have all bases covered, it’s time to write up your complaint following the set procedure.
Despite how tempting it may be, refrain from getting too personal. Try to stay calm and rational – this will actually work in your favour in the long run.
Concentrate on providing specific concrete examples of where you think you’ve been treated unfairly to allow an assessment to take place.
Receive Completion of Procedures letter
As you might expect, these things can take time to be resolved. However, the university has an obligation to send you a ‘Completion of Procedures’ letter as quickly as possible. This essentially outlines the issues they’ve identified and their final decision.
You should hear confirmation that they’ve received your complaint within a week, but it may take a month or two to hear a decision.
It’s also worth knowing that some universities will try to wrangle out of this stage, which makes it difficult to take your case to the OIA if you’re dissatisfied with the outcome, so make sure you chase them up.
Which takes us to the next stage….
If necessary, take it to the OIA
Hopefully you’re satisfied with the response you get from your university, but if you feel that you haven’t achieved the outcome you deserve in your situation, take your case to the OIA (or the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman if you’re a student in Scotland).
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA for short) is the independent body tasked with reviewing student complaints. They don’t cover everything, however – you can’t go to them with cases about admission, academic judgement, student employment or any complaint which has or is currently going through court.
The OIA can only look at your complaint once you’ve first gone through the internal complaints procedure of your university and have a ‘Completion of Procedures’ (COP) letter in your hand.
You have three months from the date on the letter to file a complaint here. They will ensure that your case is looked at objectively and will look carefully at decisions and explanations made by the university.
Note: In exceptional cases they will also look at complaints where the university hasn’t got back to you within 90 days of your initial complaint.
Submit your OIA complaint
Download and fill in a complaints form. Be clear on why you dispute the university’s decision and what your expectations are.
Send it off with all the relevant evidence and paperwork used for the university complaints procedure, and don’t forget to include your COP letter.
The OIA will either agree with the university or force them to review their decision. If the case is serious and you’re still not satisfied with the outcome, you’ll need to seek proper legal advice and potentially take it to court independently. The Citizens Advice Bureau should be your first port of call in this instance.
One Anglia Ruskin student took her university to court after she believed she was given a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree!
Many undergrads feel uneasy challenging their lecturers or their university, but it’s your right. Don’t forget that voicing valid concerns and holding them accountable will also ultimately help to improve the experience of future students, too.
Complained to your uni and have an experience to share? Or are you having trouble processing a complaint? As always, let us know in the comments below or contact us directly for advice!