Students in the FE sector are trailing behind their higher education counterparts when it comes to the handling of complaints, explains NUS vice president for FE Toni Pearce. While universities who wrong their students could face a hearing with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, FE students have no such recourse — and it’s time that changed, she says.

For some time now, there has been cause for concern in relation to how complaints made by students in FE are dealt with.

As we look ahead to the future of the sector — the end of routine Ofsted inspections for some and the extension of compulsory education and training, as well as a less regulated sector — it is clear that students are in need of a safeguard to ensure that systematic problems are detected and dealt with in institutions.

Students in FE who experience issues with the quality of their learning, and those students who fall victim to unfair discrimination or poor provision, are without recourse to an independent adjudicator to preside over complaints.

Over the last year, we have been conducting research into the experiences of students in relation to these problems throughout England and Wales, as well as the procedures that colleges currently use to deal with them.

The complaints and appeals procedures in our sector are not monitored in any formal way, and students are unable to turn to an independent body. We believe the implementation of such a body would make providers truly accountable.

The findings of the research we have undertaken supports the anecdotal evidence with which the NUS is consistently provided by members.

This evidence suggests more can be done by colleges to promote the existence of complaints procedures and the processes these involve.

More too can be done to encourage individuals to submit a complaint if they feel unfairly discriminated against, and more can also be done to resolve complaints as quickly and fairly as possible.

The complaints and appeals procedures in our sector are not monitored in any formal way”

The quality of complaints procedures throughout the sector currently leaves students in the dark when it comes to their own rights of redress against their provider.

Only 4.3 per cent of respondents to our survey believed their students were “fully aware” of the college complaints procedure.

And 71.4 per cent of respondents felt that students should be able to appeal against the college’s decision to an independent body beyond the college.

We believe that having a national independent adjudicator for FE will help drive up the quality of complaints procedures within institutions.

More than 60 per cent of respondents to our survey believed that college complaints procedures were transparent, fair in just “some cases,” or not even at all.

As part of the research, we have produced a set of recommendations for the government, including implementing a national independent adjudicator for student complaints in FE.

We have drawn up a set of recommendations for providers that includes publicising complaints procedures during enrolment, making them accessible and easier to find, providing a maximum timetable for complaints and appeals to be dealt with within, staff training around handling of complaints and making information available to the students’ union about the number of complaints, and those which are upheld.

University students currently have the ability to have their complaint adjudicated on by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) which NUS campaigned to be created.

It’s time that this opportunity was extended to students in the FE sector, who deserve the same rights as those studying in higher education.

That’s why the NUS is calling on FE Minister Matthew Hancock to resolve complaints adjudications for his sector’s students this January.

Toni Pearce, NUS vice president for FE



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  1. Although SFA recommend otherwise, it is nearly impossible for students to get College of North West London’s complaint procedure. If you google “CNWL complaints procedure”, a single short webpage informs students “principal’s decision is final”. However, if you make a Freedom of Information request you can get the full 7-page complaints procedure – inside it says after the principal’s decision there is another stage – you can complain to the Chair of the Board of Governors. CNWL lied, probably because they do not want the Board of Governors challenging the poor performance of the management. Ofsted says that in inadequate colleges “Governors are insufficiently rigorous in holdling providers to account for the quality of performance.” I find Parents’ and Young People’s Complaints about Schools quite interesting – it says:
    “As with other aspects of schools’ complaints processes, the interviews suggest that the parent’s right to a hearing by the governing body was not always made entirely clear.” This is why the SFA’s and the NUS’s recommendation that students have full access to the complaints procedure is so important – managers have a tendency to be very Machiavellian when dealing with complaints so as to avoid accountability. I think an independent adjudicator is definitely needed, however, isn’t that what the SFA do already? By the way, CNWL don’t tell students they can complain to the SFA either.