A legal change later this year will strengthen the rights of general FE college learners taking higher education courses. Smita Jamdar looks at areas where colleges’ have struggled.

In more than two decades of working with FE colleges, I have never been asked to advise on as many learner complaints as I am now.There are many reasons why this is,

There are many reasons why this is, including, a greater awareness among learners of their legal rights, a greater investment by some learners in their own education and a greater willingness to challenge where expectations are not met are just some of them.

There is also the strengthening of consumer rights that will hit the sector later this year when the Consumer Rights Act comes into force, bringing with it the powerful new remedies of a right to a repeat performance and a right to a discount.

More colleges that deliver higher education will find themselves directly subject to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. This will almost certainly continue the upward trend as far as learner complaints are concerned.

The most common complaints I come across relate to, firstly, an alleged failure to deliver the programme as promoted.

These complaints often arise when colleges are forced to make changes to the content or method of delivery or assessment, often because of circumstances outside their control.

Perhaps recruitment has not been as expected or a key member of staff has departed. Perhaps promised placement opportunities have not materialized.

Alternatively, the complaints might relate to dissatisfaction with the quality of what is on offer, whether that be the education itself, or the other facilities available.

Avoiding these complaints depends largely on clarity, communication and commitment.

In terms of complaints, the most common characteristic cited in my experience is disability

Information about what learners can expect should be clear and comprehensive, including information on when and why things may change. Constant and open two-way communication with learners will identify at an early stage where things are going wrong, help to find swift solutions and prevent escalation.

Commitment to the learners in terms of delivering what has been promised, putting their needs at the heart of decisions to change what has been offered to them, and in finding solutions that minimize the adverse impact on them when problems have arisen, will also keep complaints low in numbers and in acrimony.

Secondly, perceived disability discrimination. Colleges are diverse communities and learners have the benefit of protection against discrimination on the grounds of a range of protected characteristics.

In terms of complaints, the most common characteristic cited in my experience is disability. Hidden disabilities, learning disabilities and mental ill-health feature highly.

Colleges seem to struggle particularly in two respects: firstly, a failure to obtain enough information at an early enough stage to assess what needs a learner with disabilities might have and secondly, where appropriate , to consider and implement such adjustments as are reasonably necessary to allow the learner to access the educational and other services on offer.

These complaints can be reduced or avoided by ensuring that staff at all levels of the organization have an appropriate level of understanding of the legal obligations towards learners with disabilities to enable them to either refer the matter on within the organization or themselves reach defensible decisions on what to do.

Dissemination of relevant and specific information about individual students’ disability-related needs to teaching and other staff who engage with those students is important.

And thirdly, challenges on the grounds that there has been a failure to deal fairly with learners.

Based on my experience, college disciplinary and fitness to practise/study policies are being invoked more frequently, yet sometimes fail to observe even the most basic principles of fairness and natural justice.

Common shortcomings include a failure properly to articulate the case the learner has to answer, a confusion of roles between investigator and decision-maker, and a failure to allow the learner to test the case against her by testing the evidence.

There is every reason to suspect that learner complaints will increase in the years ahead.

However, relatively simple steps to address the underlying issues will protect colleges against wasted management time and resource in trying to defend the sometimes indefensible or putting things right.