A complaint about the complaints procedure

Joseph Caddick on his experiences down the University rabbit hole

Joseph Caddick
13th May 2021
Peter E on Flickr, edited by Joe Molander
This year has been a challenging time for students. Every week has brought new concerns over teaching quality, ‘safety nets’, the student experience more generally and – as a final year student – graduation. As a School Rep I’ve heard first hand just how many people are dissatisfied with so many things this year, myself included. This has not been an easy or pleasant year to be a student, and that is why I wanted to make a formal complaint with the University. It was a fruitless endeavour.

To start the complaint process, you have to compile a list of evidence to back up your case, which is similar to when you submit a PEC. That’s to be expected: you need to have evidence to corroborate your story. When it comes to making a complaint about how your mental health has been impacted, it’s always going to be difficult. You have to show email chains of arranging appointments with Student Wellbeing (or being unable to, in my case), discussions with your Personal Tutor and so on. Trawling up through those experiences is unpleasant, but a necessary evil.

Once you’ve compiled that evidence, the first step is to get in touch with your Head of School about the issue. This is considered a Level 1 complaint. It wasn’t too helpful in this case, because I have no major problems with my school. All of my issues were related to executive-level decisions. I made sure to emphasise that as well. After a few days, you hear back from the Head of School. If their answer doesn’t satisfy you (or couldn’t, if it’s beyond their control), you can progress to Level 2.

At Level 2, your complaint is taken to the executive board. At this point they decided to say that their responses this year had been appropriate to their internal processes, which didn’t sit right with me at all. Everything at this point shows no respect or empathy. Their defence comes from the same stale barrel of rhetoric from which they’ve scraped since the pandemic hit. Of course the situation was unprecedented. Had I known it was to happen and affect half of my degree, though, I could not say for sure I would pay £9250 a year (plus the maintenance loan) to study here. It’s not the same in so many ways and they know that: they just don’t want to acknowledge it outside of empty platitudes. I asked for a formal apology at the very least. They couldn’t even give me – or any of us, for that matter – that small token of understanding.

They offered me hush money

So, of course, they chose not to uphold that complaint. What they did offer, though, was £150 as a ‘goodwill’ gesture. Frankly, I believe it was something more sinister, though they won’t admit that. At the very least, it struck me as a hollow way to try and get me to keep my trap shut. By this point, two months had passed, and it looked like nothing was going to happen. Being as stubborn as I am, I rejected the ‘hush money’, as everyone I told about the situation called it. I then forwarded my complaint to Level 3. You’re allowed to do this if you “remain unhappy with the outcome” and have new evidence to support your initial claim.

Flash forward another month, and the final response came through. Firstly, the rules had changed. Apparently, you can now only go for a Level 3 complaint if you believe there had been irregularities (a deliberately nebulous term) in your assessment. This differs from both the website’s guidance and what I had been told by the Student Advice Centre. If they did change it, they didn’t let anyone know about it. They also said that they had been in touch with student representatives about the struggles they’ve faced this year. I had to specifically ask members of the executive board to attend a meeting. That was, of course, a more general meeting in which I couldn’t delve into my individual circumstances. Again, they didn’t uphold the complaint.

The University goes out of its way to make the procedure a gruelling, unpleasant slog

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is clear that the University goes out of its way to make the complaints procedure a gruelling, unpleasant slog. It is effectively impossible to come out the other end with a satisfied response. They are aware of just how bad students have had it this year, and refuse to engage with them outside of the Sabbatical Officers. The Sabbs have done a great job, but that’s besides the point.

All we are to the University, as much as they will never admit it, are cash cows. They have done absolutely nothing substantial to prove otherwise, and deserve to be called out for it.

Even if the complaint didn’t amount to anything, I’m glad that I made it. I’ve taken it to the next step as well, which is the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. I’m not too hopeful that anything will happen, but I want my frustration about how we have been treated to be heard and – hopefully – acted on.

A spokesperson for the University said “We have worked hard to ensure that our processes for handling student complaints are clear, transparent and accessible. Full details of the process is available for students on our website. While we’re not able to comment on individual cases, we can say that all our processes, and the financial awards that we make, are in line with good practice from the Office for the Independent Adjudicator. If any student has feedback on how we can make the process better for our students, we are always willing to receive it. Please let us know at Academic-Registrar@newcastle.ac.uk”

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