Tuesday 01-09-2015 - 14:25
Rob Behrens is the Chief Executive and Independent Adjudicator for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA), the company that handles students' complaints against universities within England and Wales.
Rob spoke to NUS at the recent Membership Services Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University Students’ Union.
How does the OIA work with students’ unions and institutions?
The whole principle of a classic ombudsman services is that there should be a partnership between the bodies that we overlook and us as the adjudicator. We’re working very hard to have good formal and informal relations with universities, students’ unions and complainants, so that they can tell us what they think we should be doing which we’re not doing and how to do things better in a way that will help us be more competent. You can’t do that without having regular contact, dialogue, communication, argument. That is why it’s so important for us not to sit in Reading to be the policemen that looks at the complaints but for us to get out, go onto campuses and see the reality of the situation.
My visits in the early days were viewed with trepidation but universities and students’ unions, but that’s gone now. People understand that we’re simply learning how to do it better rather than snooping.
There’s no substitute for making fair decisions. First of all the scheme is much more competent, independent and transparent than its predecessor. It gives £400,000 to student complainants by way of compensation. Its decisions are broadly speaking upheld by the courts. We have had over 55 judicial reviews and we’ve lost two in part – that’s a very good record and shows the courts think we’re doing a good job. Students’ unions can point people to someone who is not a lawyer, not going to take large amounts of money from the student as it’s free to use.
How can students work with their students’ unions to make a complaint?
I find that when a student is represented by their students’ union in an OIA case, they get comprehensive, evidence-based advice which is free to them, which enables them to come forward with confidence. Students who don’t use their unions are sometimes represented by their parents, which doesn’t work because there’s too much emotional baggage tied to that, or their represented by lawyers who charge a lot of money and usually that’s not worth the effort, although sometimes it is for very difficult cases. I think that we should praise and feature the professionalism of students’ union membership services and advice centres because they’re providing a function which is not provided in Europe where unions are much less strong and policy-literate than NUS is.
What advice would you give any students’ unions who don’t have a developed relationship with the OIA?
Give us a ring. Get on the phone, send us an email, and find us on Twitter. You can’t create trust without having a conversation. The use of direct conversation is a good beginning. In the past two years we’ve sent a lot of my colleagues, and me, out to students’ unions to help them think through how to give advice when previously they haven’t been able to do that. The good practice framework is the skeleton of how to do it.
What does the future of student complaints look like?
We’re coming to the crunch because this is the first year that students who’ve paid £9000 have been through their third year exams, and we will see the impact of that in our complaint figures for 2015. I expect them to be up again after a two year pause. Students continue to be assertive and things are moving in the direction of student power. The internet is there, the National Union of Students is there nationally and on campus, and the Consumer Rights Act is giving students more power to challenge universities so I think this is a good time for students in comparison to 20 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with complaining if you have grounds to do so.
It’s about the power relationship that exists in universities and I have evidence from surveys and conversations that sometimes universities – not universities corporately but individuals in universities – try to chill students away from making a complaint, quite unjustifiably at times, saying ‘it won’t do your reputation any good, you’ll find it hard to get a reference, you’ll be labelled as a troublemaker’. Most universities aren’t like that but there are some people in universities that have engaged in that behaviour. So it’s difficult, particularly for postgraduate students who rely on their supervisors for feedback, to make complaints and all students have to know that we are there if it goes wrong. We’re there to support the university if it goes right in the same way.
As students pay more, they will see it as a right to make a complaint rather than something exceptional that they shouldn’t do. The trepidation factor will diminish and we’ll be hard at work for a long time to come.
You can find more about the OIA and its work here.