September 1, 2015, has gone down in FE as the date from which complaints about the sector’s higher education provision were handled in same way that university complaints are. Felicity Mitchell outlines the change, why it has happened and considers whether principals should be worried.

The Higher Education Act 2004 required the appointment of an independent body to run a student complaint Scheme in England and Wales and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education was designated to operate this Scheme in January 2005.

The Act defined which institutions were required to join the Scheme and, thus, whose students could access the OIA. Students studying for a higher education qualification at an FE college could complain to the OIA, but only where the qualification they were studying for was awarded by a university and only then about something that was the responsibility of that university. So for example, the OIA could consider a complaint about the outcome of an academic appeal which the university considered, but not a service which the college had provided.

It was not always clear whether a student at a college could complain to the OIA or not, and what they could complain about. So, students with a complaint about course content might be bounced back and forth between their college and the university that awarded their qualification, while each argued that the other was responsible.

Equally, it was unfair that students studying at a university were able to complain to an independent body about anything to do with their studies, while students studying for the same award but at a college could only complain about some aspects.

The 2011 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, promised to change this, but legislation was not forthcoming.

The opportunity for change came with the Consumer Rights Act 2015 which extended membership of the OIA Scheme to include all providers offering higher education courses designated for student support funding, and all providers with degree-awarding powers.

The changes come into effect in relation to complaints arising after September 1, 2015. This means that most higher education students can now access the OIA Scheme no matter where they choose to study.

Somewhere in England or Wales a student is raising an issue with their college which will escalate to a complaint, and will become the first eligible complaint received by the OIA about an FE college

FE colleges come to the OIA from a position of strength. Many are already familiar with the OIA from complaints by students on courses leading to awards conferred by partner universities. They have extensive experience of dealing with complaints and have tried and tested procedures. Over recent months, staff from many colleges have attended OIA introductory workshops or discussed complaints handling with the OIA.

An excellent resource for colleges is the OIA’s Good Practice Framework for handling Complaints and Academic Appeals [visit feweek.co.uk for live link] which sets out general principles and operational guidance on dealing with issues students raise. This is complemented by guidance the OIA has provided to colleges and universities about how to handle complaints in the context of collaborative provision. There will of course be challenges ahead. During the last 10 years, the profile of complaints received by the OIA has been remarkably stable — around 60 per cent relate to academic outcomes. But we expect that the next few years may throw up complaints that we have not seen before.

The question we are most often asked is whether this change will increase the volume of complaints from higher education students studying in FE colleges. The answer — it is far too early to tell.

We have, for some time, been working with higher education providers to encourage the early resolution of complaints, so that students do not need to bring complaints to the OIA. The FE colleges we have spoken to are already alert to the value of sorting out issues locally. Somewhere in England or Wales a student is raising an issue with their college which will escalate to a complaint, and will become the first eligible complaint received by the OIA about an FE college.

In the months before that happens we will continue to work with colleges to improve our understanding of their students and their processes, and to make sure that we are able to support them as they continue to develop their practice in complaints handling.