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Student complaints: trends in students’ unions

18 July 2022

Are students’ unions seeing a rise in the number of student complaints? Is the type of complaints changing? How should they be handled?

This article summarises a webinar we recently held on this topic, exploring these questions and more.

Thanks go to Jim Dickinson of WonkHE for co-hosting the webinar.

Impact of an increase in complaints

  • In general, we are seeing more complaints from students about things which they may not have raised in a formal setting in the past.  Instead of a narrow focus on academic appeals, complaints cover a wider range of areas.  This could be because students are more aware of behavioural standards, expectations around consent and their right to complain, all of which will hopefully give them more confidence that their complaint will be handled well.  This is of course a positive thing. 
  • However, it does mean that things which may have previously been resolved through an informal mediation process are now being dealt with far more formally.  The students’ union is increasingly seen as a process-orientated referee of disputes.  This generates more work and more complexity for students’ unions with resultant pressure on resources.  It also means that students unions must develop their standards and processes to ensure they are robust enough to cope with these new trends.
  • The OIA say that they are seeing an increase in the number of group complaints from students.  This is unsurprising, given the pandemic and recent industrial action.  However, it has implications, because the remedies generally only benefit the people who have signed the complaint letter.  It raises the question about whether students’ unions should be encouraging these group complaints, if it means that only those students who have engaged with it stand to benefit from any redress.

Third party involvement in complaints

  • Another trend involves third parties bringing complaints on behalf of students.  We have seen multiple examples where external pressure groups or national organisations put forward representations on behalf of individual students or student societies. 
  • In many cases, this legalises a process which perhaps should not be legalised and can introduce very complex issues, which then have to be considered by the student-led complaints panel.  The student panel is then expected to come to a decision without always having the necessary knowledge or training, and the weight of responsibility can be a significant burden. 

Should complaints panels always be student-led?

  • The involvement of third parties in complaints processes raises the question about whether students should be removed from complaints panels.  This is undoubtedly controversial, when a students’ union is supposed to be a student-led organisation with its complaint process being a peer-to-peer resolution process. 
  • Another question arises when a student officer is on a complaints panel.  Can they really be unbiased when they are hearing complaints, especially if their manifesto was focused on a particular issue which has some relevance?  Policies and processes designed to exclude external representation and manage conflicts of interest can help, but don’t always solve these problems.

Dealing with a multitude of policies

  • A common issue in the students’ union sector arises when there are a multitude of policies and procedures which may apply in any given situation.  For example, a student may be resident in halls, may be an employee of the students’ union, may be a member, officer, trustee and/or society official.  If they are accused of unbecoming conduct, and a complaint is initiated against them, which disciplinary policy or procedure should apply?  There is a risk that a students’ union could be accused of pinballing between different policies, in other words “jurisdiction shopping” depending on what the situation requires.  
  • Issues can arise where the definitions used in different policies are different, for example definitions of misconduct or harassment.  In some cases, a students’ union’s code of conduct or policies may also go further than a university’s (or even the law) in what it requires, and vice versa.  Consistency in policies is really important, but not always easy to achieve.
  • Some students’ unions operate a “severity trigger policy”, whereby complaints of a particular level of severity are referred to be dealt with under (for example) the university’s code of conduct, rather than the students’ union’s.  The severity trigger could be a particularly serious alleged incident or could involve a repeated pattern of behaviour. 
  • The willingness to refer a complaint on to elsewhere does require a certain level of trust that the complaint will be handled properly.  Not all students’ unions will have confidence that a university would handle a case appropriately, and remedies under a university’s procedure may be different to the students’ union. 
  • In addition, a students’ union still has its own legal duties, which it will need to discharge.  If it is subcontracting a complaint out, it needs effective oversight to ensure it is going to be dealt with properly.

Kindness in handling complaints

  • The OIA has developed its ‘kindness principles’ and the general feeling was that these are having a positive effect.  More listening is happening, and a student has the chance to be listened to and understood. 
  • In some students’ unions, “wellbeing contacts” for people going through an investigation or a disciplinary procedure have been introduced, which gives people a safe, confidential space to talk things through. 
  • The language used in complaints policies can be combative – could it be refocussed towards resolution rather than conflict, in order to reduce defensiveness, and demystify intimidating procedures.

What does the future hold?

  • A trend we are seeing, which we anticipate will continue to increase, is the moving of political debates into the disciplinary / complaints arena.  From transphobia to anti-semitism, student complaints are increasingly set in a wider political context – making the job of a student-led complaints panel even more difficult.
  • There is an ongoing tension between the right to free speech and the need to protect students from discrimination and harmful behaviour.  For example, gender critical comments may breach an EDI policy, but  may be defended in the name of free speech.  In anticipation of the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, there will be even more pressure on students’ unions to balance the right to free speech with a complaints process which gives students the confidence to raise a complaint in the knowledge it will be handled properly.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Laura Moss or any of the Charities and Social Economy team on 0113 244 6100.

You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys Charities team on Twitter.

The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. The law stated is correct at the date (stated above) this article was first posted to our website. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors. 

Laura Moss View Biography

Laura Moss


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