Telling the complete story

FOI Man examines a news story that appears to use FOI responses and other information in a misleading way.

Today’s Times Higher Education magazine includes a story with the headline:

Academy accused of ‘gaming’ OIA complaint rules.”

One of my other hats at work, alongside FOI, data protection and copyright, is dealing with student complaints. So this story caught my eye. A story featuring FOI and complaints. Imagine my excitement!

The article claims that “Universities are declaring only a fraction of the student complaints made against them, figures show, prompting accusations that they are deliberately minimising the figures.” It explains – correctly – that universities are expected to issue a completion of procedures letter when a student has exhausted the internal procedures of the institution. This letter sets out the university’s position on the complaint or appeal and gives the student instructions as to how they can take their complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, commonly known as the OIA.

Each year the OIA collects and publishes the numbers of completion of procedures letters issued by each university. The article in THE then goes on to explain that through making FOI requests to universities, they had found that the letters were sent only to a “handful” of students who had made unsuccessful appeals or complaints. In other words, the numbers of reported completion of procedures letters were much smaller than the numbers of complaints and appeals that had been rejected by universities. The universities concerned explained the difference. Quite rightly, and in line with OIA rules, the letters are only sent to students who exhaust all internal procedures. So if a student chooses not to appeal a decision internally (which could be for many reasons – including that they were persuaded that their case had no merit), they won’t receive such a letter.

And of course, universities haven’t tried to hide the number of complaints and appeals. The numbers were released when asked for under FOI.

What this story boils down to is that the number of completion of procedures letters is not representative of the number of complaints and appeals made to universities. That’s not exactly news, folks. That’s not to say that universities don’t get these issues wrong. But it isn’t possible to conclude that from the evidence described.

This isn’t a particularly important or high profile story, but I think it illustrates why some public employees and politicians get irritated with FOI – because too often the facts released are used in misleading ways.

2 comments

  1. Jack Grove says:

    I am the author of this story and I think you have entirely missed its point – almost purposefully so.

    The OIA is publishing this CoP numbers ostensibly to allow an insight into complaint levels at different institutions – and asking universities to compare these numbers. In fact, some of those with the highest number of complaints have the lowest number of reported CoPs – which indicates that this method of ascertaining quality/student satisfaction is very unreliable. Institutions which think they are playing fair by having open, accessible complaints system feel like they are getting named and shamed when people who work the system (having long-winded, Byzantine complaints systems) are not being picked up – indeed they are being held up a paragons of excellence.

    I think the piece asks some pretty fair questions about how universities are processing complaints and whether they are doing it fairly – but you could say snidely that they’ve released the stats followed the rules and that’s that, but why do quite so many students give up on their complaints at some institutions when those at other places don’t?

    • FOIMan says:

      Jack, thanks for responding to my post. However, I don’t think I have misunderstood the point of your story. I don’t disagree that there may well be universities who “play the system” – I just don’t think anything you’ve provided in your piece illustrates that. I can only speak from my own experience which is that as the officer responsible for managing the complaints process, I, together with colleagues, have done a lot of work in recent years to improve how we handle complaints (including reducing the number of stages that students have to go through). The QAA standards now place a great emphasis on the fairness of complaints procedures. It may be that some are deliberately making their procedures byzantine, but that certainly isn’t the direction we’re going in at my institution, and it seems surprising to me, given the increasing relevance of complaints procedures and the degree of scrutiny they now receive. I don’t think it is being snide to point out that your key point – that the number of completion of procedures letters does not reflect the number of complaints – is not a revelation. Is the OIA publishing the numbers of CoP letters for the reason you say? I’m not convinced they are. If they are, then they need to reconsider this. But the number of CoP letters reported does not tell you or anyone else anything about the attitude of the HEI concerned – it just tells you how many people reached the end of the university’s procedures.