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Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) Good Practice Framework: Handling complaints and academic appeals

The third edition of the Good Practice Framework updates guidance on handling complaints and academic appeals in higher education in England and Wales. It is intended to support institutions to develop and follow fair processes, and to be a tool to help evaluate them. It can also be a useful resource for students and those who advise them as guidance on what good complaints and appeals processes should look like. The revised framework follows a consultation launch in September which received responses from staff, students, representative bodies, sector organisations, and was devised with input from the OIAHE steering group. Published alongside the main framework document are two lists covering principles and bias. The points below relate to the main framework unless indicated otherwise.

The revised framework can be found here

The guidance on bias is here

The guidance on principles is here.


  • The OIA has updated the language of the 10 key principles behind the framework and separated them into a standalone document (principles document)
  • An additional document has been published on bias; this was identified in the consultation as an area that needed clarification (bias document)
  • Governors may want to use the framework to gain assurances that complaints procedures are robust and operating to the suggested timeframes. Consideration of a formal complaint or academic appeal should be completed within 90 calendar days or sooner in tough cases where the impact of the issues raised is significantly affecting the student’s mental health, where the student is very distressed or where the issues are very sensitive
  • It is “not good practice” to ask a student to sign a confidentiality agreement or non-disclosure agreement as part of an offer to settle or resolve any complaint. Such agreements can leave the student feeling that their complaint has not been listened to or taken seriously, and can mean that learning from the complaint is lost (p38)
  • New guidance on what to do when more than one process might apply recommends institutions take a flexible approach and vary its normal procedures where reasonable. In deciding which process is most appropriate, or the order in which processes should happen, providers should think about what outcome the student is seeking (p25)
  • The new framework covers making complaints about student representative bodies. Some providers are obliged by law to ensure there is a complaints procedure available to students who want to complain about their students’ union. Where a student complains to the provider about the student representative body, it is good practice to explain what the institution’s role is and what it can and can’t do (p30)
  • Some providers have processes in place that allow students to report concerns about the behaviour of other people anonymously. It is good practice to explain clearly whether and how the provider’s response to anonymous reporting is different to how it can respond to complaints that are not anonymous (p31)
  • With group complaints, institutions should consider whether the current complaints procedure is flexible enough to allow it to handle complaints from groups of students in an effective and efficient way, or whether it would be beneficial to introduce a separate process setting out how it will handle group complaints (p34)
  • Some complaints may need an institution to take “particularly swift action” – for example in cases involving ongoing disability support, a threat of serious harm or where delay may cause significant difficulties regarding a student’s visa status (p18)
  • The guidance includes an expanded section on learning from complaints. It makes the point that a low volume of student complaints is not of itself an indicator of success and emphasises the importance of collecting, keeping and analysing information about complaints and appeals (p41)

Implications for governance:

Governors may be familiar with earlier iterations of the OIA’s framework for handling complaints. This third edition brings together guidance for handling complaints and for academic appeals and aims to provide clarification on issues raised in the consultation.

While the framework is not binding, some commentators suggest it “as close to a set of ‘soft’ rights (both on process and the issues that students complain about) as it gets”.

Governors may want to use the framework to gain assurances that complaints procedures are robust and operating to the suggested timeframes, and that complete consideration of a formal complaint or academic appeal is completed within 90 calendar days.

The framework covers investigating complaints, mediation and conciliation, appeal panel meetings and hearings and closing complaints or academic appeal.

Good practice advice is given on more complicated complaints that potentially involve one or more processes. For example, if a student’s complaint about teaching is upheld, an exam board might reconsider their case on the basis of the conclusions reached on the complaint.

The framework also references group complaints and good practice when issues are raised against other students or members of staff, student representative bodies or third parties who provide a service on behalf of institutions.

A number of institutions have designed specific processes to address students’ concerns about the behaviour of another member of the community, for instance bullying and harassment or dignity at work and study procedures.

Some have systems in place to allow anonymous complaints. The framework says institutions should explain to all students that raising a concern anonymously might change the way that a provider can investigate the issue, and limit how it can respond to and support the students concerned.

At times, a fair complaints procedure requires flexibility. For instance institutions should be prepared to speed up tough cases where the impact of the issues raised is “significantly affecting the student’s mental health, where the student is very distressed” or where the issues are “of a highly sensitive nature”.

The framework also lays out expectations of confidentiality and behaviour, how to support student complainants and how best to communicate outcomes.

Learning from concerns, complaints and academic appeals (p42) is an important element of the guidance, and a section that governors as well as managers may be well advised to play close attention to. Advice about ensuring accountability says there should be appropriate oversight of complaints and appeals at governance level. It echoes the point made by the former adjudicator Rob Behrens at the recent Advance HE governors’ conference that governing bodies should be presented with data and analysis on student complaints.

This should include information on any persistent complaints or common themes in different complaints; timely handling and whether students understand the reasons for the institution’s decision even if they disagree with it.

It is worth bearing in mind, says the OIA, that in an open culture of feedback and partnership with students, institutions should expect to receive complaints and appeals.

The report also highlights the work of the adjudicator, who students are calling on in increasing numbers. The OIA received 2,763 new complaints in 2021, according to its annual report, 6 per cent more than in 2020.

It is important for governors to consider how they seek assurance for effective Academic Governance in light of the updated Good Practice Framework. Advance HE has a range of reports, publications and resources to support understanding the role of Academic Governance in a higher education provider,  governors at Advance HE member institutions can access and download for free by clicking here.

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