How to respond to student complaints effectively

Every university receives complaints from time to time. These can range from informal verbal comments to formal written complaints and may escalate rapidly unless you deal with them effectively. 

The complaint may be about staff, or may be about other students, and your institution needs to commit to ensuring a high-quality educational experience for its students. This includes having detailed guidelines about how to respond to student complaints.

  • Know the basics
  • Be prepared
  • Listen, believe and signpost
  • Streamline a reporting process

Know the basics

Student services have such an important role to play in a student’s overall academic experience. A complaint is defined as an expression of dissatisfaction by one or more students about action or lack of action by the university, or about the standard of service provided by or on behalf of the university. 

So if a student is unhappy, you need to respond in a way that’s empathetic, timely and as transparent as possible. All university students, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, are entitled to enjoy a safe and positive experience at university.

Depending on the type of complaint, there should be information readily available about the course of action that can be taken. Improving internal efficiencies starts with recognising where you can make enhancements. Are you completely prepared to handle a complaint of any kind? 

Be prepared

One benefit of working in the public sector is there’s always a policy to abide by, giving you a clear roadmap to navigate a multitude of challenging situations. Universities must emphasise their commitment to student needs and develop effective complaint handling processes.

Ideally, complaints policies should be reviewed every three years at a minimum. If there isn’t one in sight, develop one as soon as possible. Complaints can be a good thing as they allow you to make improvements that will potentially benefit the rest of the student body.

Students should always be able to access free and independent support in confidence. While front-facing staff need to be updated with policies, it’s also important to clearly advertise complaint and appeal procedures to students - in an actionable way. It can be in handbooks, student forums, websites, virtual learning environments and anywhere else students might benefit from knowing this information. 

If the policies can be reduced to helpful infographics and shared far and wide then that’s a great start, but often students won't read policies until they need to - when something has happened. They’re not something to shout about once, it needs to be broadcast across all possible communications channels and reiterated time and time again.

What if you could reach these students at a time they felt most comfortable to learn about their challenges and support them better?

Listen, believe and signpost

When you empower students, your reputation will only grow positively. We recognise everybody has unique circumstances and regurgitating policy isn’t always the solution. When responding to a student disclosure, you should exercise the three most important parts of the process.

  • Listen: More often than not, the student will just want you to listen, so give them the platform to speak out comfortably. Don't panic, ask unnecessary questions or require the student to take immediate action - just value that they’ve come to you in the first place. Allow them to say as much or as little as they feel comfortable. It’s also important to reassure the student that discussions are confidential.
  • Believe: Often many people do not disclose something has happened or make a complaint due to fear of not being believed. It’s the job of student services to make sure students are believed. You can work towards removing this psychological barrier by proving that what they say will be taken seriously.
  • Signpost: Direct them to support or to safe spaces to talk. This requires recognising their agency in what happens next and respecting their decision, particularly where it may not be what you expected, or what you think you would do.

Ultimately, responding to a disclosure can be made easier with an effective report process that’s accessible for all.

Streamline a reporting process

For students making a complaint, there can be additional barriers beyond the frustration of not knowing if their concerns will be heard or solved. They may fear an inappropriate or counter-productive response from their university which can deter them and other students from making further complaints.

Complicated or outdated processes are commonplace in the public sector, but they can mean reporting students fall through the cracks and a student goes unheard. Manual reporting processes can also sometimes be long-winded and lack anonymity, discouraging victim-survivors from reporting in the first place.

Luckily, there are powerful support platforms ready to help you innovate. They work alongside processes you already have in place, being that helping hand when students can’t wait for student services to open or don’t have the confidence to articulate their concerns in a face to face setting.

The importance of having visible and accessible reporting mechanisms in place for students, as well as staff who are appropriately trained and sufficiently aware of the support available to students, can’t be undervalued. It’s better to have solid processes in place and rarely need them than to have nothing in place and end up with dissatisfied students.

As well as embedding a preventative approach institution-wide, it’s important to recognise policies aren’t always enough and getting on board with the shift in institutional culture is non-negotiable. Our latest guide helps higher education institutions like yours pioneer efficiency for your student services and prioritise the student experience.

Respond to complaints, and drive efficiency in your institution

Cultivating an environment that wants to adapt and accommodate student’s evolving needs starts with recognising the need for it. Our guide helps you pinpoint outdated processes, communicate to your team and improve efficiency and effectiveness in your student services

We’ve addressed barriers, increasing trends and stats to inspire you and any decision-makers involved with making the change to kickstart the transition.

Download your guide today and join our mission 🚀

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