Image: Stefano Dunne/ The Boar

Student complaints at University of Warwick almost double in a year

The number of student complaints received by the University almost doubled during last year, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request sent by The Boar has revealed.

While the 2016/2017 academic year saw a total of 88 Stage 2 and Stage 3 formal complaints sent to the University’s Student Complaints Resolution Procedure, 162 were received during the 2017/2018 academic year.

Stage 2 complaints can be filed if the student is unsatisfied with the outcome or handling of their complaint at Stage 1, where issues are usually resolved informally, or if the complaint is too complex or serious for informal resolution.

Stage 3 complaints, which constitute institutional review, can only be requested under strict circumstances, such as proof that the Stage 2 decision was unreasonable or the submission of new evidence.

Individually, both Stage 2 and 3 complaints saw stark increases over the year, from 73 to 138 for stage 2 and from 15 to 24 respectively for Stage 3.

When asked why they believed the number of formal complaints had almost doubled in one year, the University suggested that the increase was a product of “increased awareness of the Student Complaints Procedure”.

When asked whether this meant that the University was not doing enough to make students aware of the complaints system previously, and whether there were any other factors at play in the increase, the University responded: “The University has long complied with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)’s Good Practice Framework for handling complaints.”

The University has been contacted to see how many complaints they have seen in each of the OIA’s categories.

The University did not provide an answer as to how they will be tackling the increase in student complaints.

The rise in complaints to the University only amplifies our call for more investment in the complaints and disciplinary processes

– SU President Liam Jackson

The Boar can also reveal that in the past three academic years, the official team that deal with complaints at the University has consisted of fewer than five members of staff.

President of the Students’ Union (SU) Liam Jackson has stated he expects the University to assess whether these increases in complaints constitute “any worrying trends in the issues being complained about”, and to consider whether “proactive action” needs to take place.

“The rise in complaints to the University only amplifies our call for more investment in the complaints and disciplinary processes.

“Specifically, increasing investment in supporting complainants needs to be a priority. Students need, and deserve, a well-resourced complaints and disciplinary team to deal with these complaints effectively.”

When approached for comment regarding the size of the official complaints team, the University clarified that “less than five members” constitute the Central Complaints Resolution Team, and other members of staff from across the University work towards resolving complaints including: members of the Residential Life Team, Academic Supervisors and Heads of Departments.

The sudden increase between the years 2016 – 2018 was not witnessed during the 2015/2016 academic year, in which 70 Stage 2 and 16 Stage 3 complaints were received by the University.

The Boar can also confirm that only six students were expelled during the academic years 2015-18 as a final outcome of 336 Stage 2 and 3 student complaints combined, and between 29 and 35 staff complaints.

The University said that there were only six expulsions as “the vast majority of complaints are entirely unrelated to issues that would potentially lead to disciplinary action”.

The University has also seen a steady increase in formal complaints made by staff over the past three years.

During the academic year 2015/2016, less than five complaints were made by employees of the University of Warwick, as centrally recorded by Human Resources (HR). Additionally, less than five complaints made by employees were received via the complaints@warwick.ac.uk email address, a second medium for accepting complaints.

In the past three academic years, the official team that deal with complaints at the University has consisted of fewer than five members of staff

Combining both formal complaints (which includes grievances) received by HR and via email, the University saw an increase from 12 during the 2016/2017 academic year to 15 during 2017/2018.

Regarding the University’s response to The Boar’s investigation, the answers to The Boar’s inquiries were provided by the FOI team 27 days late. Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, a business has 20 working days to respond with either requests for clarification or answers, and an answer from the University arrived after three follow up emails from The Boar.

Liam Jackson said: “Considering the importance of tackling the issues surfaced due to the group chat incident, I’d hope that all parts of the University will work with students and the wider community to take these issues seriously and treat this process of moving forward with the priority it deserves.”

What about the “thorough, external disciplinary review”?

While the University announced on 6 February that a “thorough, external disciplinary review” will be taking place imminently, an official deadline for the outcome of this review has not been announced.

The independent review will be conducted by Dr Persaud, a solicitor with over 25 years of experience.

The University have stated that: “As an independent reviewer, Dr Persaud will be free to decide how best to conduct the review. We hope both elements will report their findings within three months.”

The SU confirmed that they met with members of the disciplinary review panel last week. Liam Jackson said: “There is a long way to go, but we as Officers are ensuring we get real, meaningful change to happen as soon as possible.”

The SU declared that they will be providing students with updates on the review throughout the process. The University did not respond when asked whether they will be providing updates throughout the process, and said they are “currently working with Dr Persaud to determine the nature, remit, membership and timeframe of the review”.

In addition to the disciplinary review, the University has promised a review of mental health provision at Warwick, particularly the average waiting time for counselling that currently stands at two months.

The University elaborated: “Warwick… is conducting a new top-down review of all aspects of Wellbeing Support Services to assess how they all can be improved to further support the Warwick community. The review aims to conclude at the start of the 2019/2020 academic year.”

Liam Jackson assured The Boar that he has had confirmation from the University that the mental health provision review will be undertaken, but has not received any other details yet.

What do the different stages of the Student Complaints Process mean?

Complaints can concern academic or non-academic matters of varying severity, categorised by the University according to OIA procedure. As stated previously, The Boar is currently waiting for a response to clarify how complaints made to the University between 2015-2018 have been classified under OIA categories.

Students are able to file a Stage 1 complaint at any time, where “straightforward complaints” can be resolved quickly and more informally.

Stage 2 complaints can be filed if the student is unsatisfied with the outcome or handling of their complaint at Stage 1, or if the complaint is too complex or serious for informal resolution. This can include both academic and non-academic matters, ranging from the quality and standard of service provided by the University to inappropriate behaviour or treatment by a staff member, student or individual associated with the University. This can include action which contravenes the University’s Dignity at Warwick Policy.

Students can only request escalating a Stage 2 complaint to Stage 3 under certain circumstances which are detailed in Section 8 of the Student Complaints Resolution Procedure. Stage 3 complaints can be requested if students are dissatisfied with the Stage 2 outcome and the issue meets the published criteria. These criteria include the revelation of new evidence, proof that appropriate processes were not followed or proof that the Stage 2 decision was unreasonable.

During the recent Warwick group chat scandal, the two female students wished to escalate their complaint regarding the University’s handling of its investigation and appeals process to Stage 3 as they were both unsatisfied with the outcome.

This request was rejected by Stuart Croft on behalf of the University as he determined that there were “insufficient grounds” to progress the complaint. The decision was taken by Stuart Croft as the Provost, who would normally make the decision, was involved in previous aspects of the complaint.

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