Watchdog for student complaints

15th August 2008 at 01:00
Colleges bow to demand from under-18s for independent service to deal with claims of unfair treatment

Colleges are drawing up plans for an independent complaints service after students called for the right to hold FE institutions to account.

The National Union of Students has been lobbying for an ombudsman or independent adjudicator to be set up to help people who believe they have been failed by colleges' internal procedures.

They want to see a similar body to the higher education adjudicator, who has the power to order institutions to change their procedures and can even order them to pay compensation to students deemed to have been unfairly treated.

At the moment, FE students are limited to their colleges' internal procedures and there is no system in place to object to decisions taken by other agencies, such as the Learning and Skills Council or local authorities.

Students argue that if the education and skills bill is to impose a new requirement on under-18s to stay in education or training, they should have better rights and representation as well.

Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said colleges agreed that students should be able to take complaints to an independent body. Proposals would be unveiled next month.

She said: "Every further education college has a charter and takes the quality of its service very seriously. The latest national learner satisfaction survey, published last month, shows that college students continue to value this quality - 90 per cent of further education students are satisfied with their learning experience, with 27 per cent being extremely satisfied.

"However, every public service needs to develop robust procedures for student complaints and we agree that students should have access to independent scrutiny if they feel the system has failed them."

It has not been decided if the FE complaints body would have the same powers as its counterpart in higher education.

Dealing with more than 700 complaints in a year, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator awarded more than Pounds 170,000 in compensation last year. Complaints typically take six months to resolve and issues range from academic results to disciplinary issues and plagiarism claims. About a quarter of complaints received were upheld.

Beth Walker, the NUS vice-president for FE, said: "Unlike users of other public services such as health and higher education, learners in further education have no recourse to independent consideration of complaints and NUS has been forcefully arguing for the creation of such a mechanism for some time.

"We are cautiously optimistic that learners will finally have at their disposal an accessible, independent and timely system for resolving their complaints when college processes fail to do so."

As well as the right to appeal to an independent adjudicator, the students' union wants teenagers to be able to challenge local authorities where they feel the provision or support on offer is inadequate.

"NUS believes that if 16- and 17- year-olds are being compelled to participate in education, then local authorities must be accountable to them about the options and support available," a spokesman said.

The University and College Union said lecturers had no objection in principle to an independent complaints system.

But Barry Lovejoy, the UCU's head of further education, said unfounded or malicious claims would have to be weeded out at an early stage to protect lecturers.

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