Everything a student needs to know about complaints to colleges and universities

A guest post by Ian Valentine

Currently, there are 115 ‘alternative education provider’ institutions for Higher Education in England and Wales, in addition to publicly funded colleges and universities. Unlike traditional universities, these institutions are not publicly funded., and between them they educate 52,000 students. Over the last 10 years, the majority of these institutions have opened as profit making enterprises. As such, it is clear that education is increasingly becoming a commodity, with students as the consumers.

All publicly funded universities, and most alternative provider colleges, will be subject to oversight by a quality assurance regulator such as QAA or BAC. Publicly funded universities, and those colleges ‘designated’ for student loans funding for individual courses are subject to increasingly rigorous scrutiny by the government funding agency HEFCE. Any institution in receipt of public funding is also subject to the jurisdiction of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the university ombudsman), and is required by the Higher Education Act 2004 to be a member of the scheme.

Admissions, exclusions, discipline, the curriculum, and complaints, for compulsory education in schools are governed by statute, as set out in the Education Act 1996 and its subordinate regulations. In contrast, providers of higher education have a wide discretion with regards to how they administer and deliver their courses. This means that providers deliver university-level education through a bewildering array of different approaches, governed only by their terms and conditions and policies (often called ‘regulations’ by universities). This article will explain some of the common things that can go wrong when studying Higher Education courses, and what you can do about it.

General

1. To whom should I complain?
The first step should always be to raise a complaint in writing to your personal tutor or the responsible department. It is best to copy in the head of the college, often called the Principal or Dean. The Principal’s contact details will usually be provided on the college’s website, especially if they are required to publish their governance and organisation structure under the Freedom of Information Act. This may speed up the response to your complaint, but be aware that Principals will rarely handle a complaint themselves at the first stage. They are often the last stage of the appeal process in smaller colleges, and so they try to remain independent of initial investigations.

Do not, however tempting it may be, copy in third parties such as the regulator or your local MEP in an attempt to intimidate the provider. Doing so will just immediately put the provider on the defensive and rule out any opportunity for a positive informal resolution. Many alternative provider colleges recruit mainly by word of mouth referrals, and their reputation is very important to them. As a result, a polite but firm email or letter setting out a genuine grievance clearly and specifically (use Complaining Cow’s tips to help you) stating exactly what you want done about it, often results in a quick and positive informal resolution.

Many awarding bodies have their own complaints procedures. These bodies include Pearson, who provide Edexcel; BTEC; LCCI accredited courses; and universities which validate courses for providers that do not have their own degree awarding powers. These external procedures can usually only be used on conclusion of the provider’s internal complaints procedure. Therefore, failing an informal resolution, your next step should be to make a formal complaint and if necessary an appeal through the provider’s complaints procedure.

Remember, as a provider of a service to consumers, under the Consumer Contracts Regulations the provider must make details of their complaints procedure available to you before you accept any offer from them for your course. If the qualifications are not awarded by the provider itself, e.g. through a partnership with a university, the provider must also tell you whether they or the awarding body have the main responsibility for complaints. If you applied online, they must provide you with a copy of that information in hard copy or as an email attachment before you start the course. Many providers publish their policies on their website and include a brief summary of the complaints procedure in the offer letter that they send out. If they receive public funding, they must publish this information under the Freedom of Information Act.

If the provider is not a publicly funded university or college, check to see if the provider advertises whether you can get student finance for your course. If your course is eligible for student loans funding, the provider will be subject to the OIA scheme, which can be used in some cases as a further stage of appeal from unsatisfactory responses to your complaints. The OIA Good Practice Framework requires the total formal dispute and internal appeals process to be resolved within 90 calendar days, and set outs various requirements for the fair handling of complaints, e.g. that you have a right to be accompanied by a non-lawyer friend.

If you are unable to resolve a dispute with a provider through their internal dispute procedure, the provider should issue you with a Completion of Procedures Letter, which will allow you to complain to the OIA if you remain dissatisfied. Please note, however, that the OIA does not consider matters of ‘academic judgement’ such as decisions about assessment; a degree classification; fitness to practise; research methodology; course content or outcomes; or matters arising out of admissions. Complaints must be made to the OIA within 12 months of the date of the Completion of Procedures Letter. If the provider has not provided a Completion of Procedures letter within 3 months, you may still be able to complain to the OIA.

2. I enrolled online, and have now changed my mind about the course. Can I get my money back?
Check the terms and conditions of your course and your offer letter. Remember, under the Consumer Contracts Regulations you need to be provided with details of your cancellation rights.

If you applied online, you will usually be entitled as a minimum to a statutory 14 calendar day cancellation period in which all pre-payments must be returned, unless you explicitly agreed to the course starting within 14 days. If you have not been provided with this information, the cancellation period is extended to 14 days after the information is provided to you if the provider gives it to you within 12 months or otherwise, a year after the date you accepted the offer. If you have a statutory cancellation right, the repayment must be made by the same method by which you paid (so vouchers or credit are not acceptable) within 14 days of you giving a clear and certain request to cancel. You do not need to use the provider’s own forms, and the request can be made verbally. However, if you make the request verbally, it is best to put it in writing to keep a record.

Finance issues

3. I paid a third-party recruitment ‘agent’ of the college for my course. The agent has gone bust without paying my money to the college, what can I do?
4. I am sponsored by my employer/have got student finance. My sponsor has not paid the provider/the Student Loans Company have refused student finance. Do I still have to pay?
Unfortunately, in many cases there is not much you can do about this. Many providers will include in their standard terms and conditions that you are jointly and severally liable with an agent, sponsor, or the Student Loans Company (SLC), for the fees. As a result, you may end up having to pay for the course twice if the sponsor or agent is unable to pay, or your student finance is refused!

Check the offer letter and terms of conditions of the college; is the term stating that you share responsibility with the agent/sponsor/SLC for the course fees obvious? If not, the term may be unfair and therefore unenforceable under the Consumer Rights Act. This is, however, a complex area of law, and legal advice should be taken before challenging the requirement to pay.

As a result, I strongly advise prospective students to only pay tuition fees directly to their course provider, and only to use agents who are paid a commission by the provider rather than those who take the money directly. You should also only apply for student finance for a course if you know you will meet the requirements and intend to attend the classes.

5. The provider has changed my course time-table/location/delivery method/core modules, so I can no longer attend the classes easily. Can I get my money back?
This will depend on both the type and extent of the changes, and the reasons for them. If it has not already done so, ask the provider to explain why the change has taken place. Check the terms and conditions or regulations of the provider; is the reason given for the change one of those stated in the these as a valid reason? If not, the provider may be in breach of contract by making the change, and for this reason the change could be deemed to be ineffective under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

A term which allows for changes of key characteristics of the course by the provider may be unfair and unenforceable under the Consumer Rights Act. Additionally, if changes are made without your consent to elements of the course set out in pre-contract information required by the Consumer Contract Regulations, such as payment arrangements, location, and method of course delivery, or they influenced you in choosing the course, the changes will be ineffective and you would be entitled to withdraw and claim a price reduction or refund accordingly. Again, this is a potentially complex and confusing area of law, and I recommend qualified legal advice is sought before challenging a change to your course.

Academic issues

6. I believe the quality of teaching/academic support was poor. What can I do?
If the course delivery was objectively poor, for example, course materials were out of date, lecturers are routinely absent, etc. you may be entitled to a refund or free re-enrolment on the course under the Consumer Rights Act, as with any other consumer service. The first step, as with any complaint about a college, is to raise this through the college’s internal complaints procedures.

If you have evidence that the failings are systematic or serious, some awarding bodies such as Pearson allow you to complain directly to them without engaging with the internal complaints procedure, e.g. in cases of ‘maladministration or malpractice’ (defined as conduct affecting the process of assessments or which would have the effect of undermining trust in the college).

The OIA scheme does cover complaints about teaching, however, this is likely to be limited to poor service which can be objectively evidenced. If you just disagree with the teaching methods, teaching style, or the usefulness and application of the course content, you are unlikely to be able to seek further redress outside of the internal complaints procedure of the provider. Such matters are usually considered ‘academic judgement’, and both the OIA, awarding bodies, and the courts are therefore reluctant to intervene.

7. I disagree with my mark. What can I do?
The provider’s academic appeals policies and procedures will specify the circumstances in which you can challenge a mark. This is usually limited to evidence of bias or extenuating circumstances. The OIA and the courts are reluctant to consider challenges to marking, as again this is usually considered ‘academic judgement’.

Discrimination issues

9. I believe I have been treated differently or harassed on grounds of race/religion/gender/sexuality/age/disability. What can I do about it?
Providers should have a policy on equal opportunities, bullying and harassment, and are required to do so by the codes of regulators such as QAA and BAC. The first step is to give the college the opportunity to resolve the issue through its internal procedures. Discrimination and harassment cases are also likely to be considered to be malpractice by awarding bodies such as Pearson, and are covered by the OIA scheme.

If you are unable to resolve the issue with the provider or OIA, or as an alternative, you may also be able to bring a case against them for breach of the Equality Act 2010, as the prohibition on discrimination, harassment, or victimisation based on ‘protected characteristics’ applies to colleges providing higher education, regardless of whether or not they receive public funding. This should be a last resort, as such cases can be highly complex and expensive and should not be undertaken without qualified legal advice or representation.

10. I have a disability, and need extra support/special equipment to study. The college says it is too expensive/too difficult and that I should apply to the government for a grant instead. Can I make the college provide it for me?
Regardless of whether they receive public funding, a provider is required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to prevent a disabled student being put at a disadvantage. However, they need only make reasonable adjustments and may be able to refuse where it is disproportionately expensive or difficult to do so. You should approach a college’s student support or student union for help with this, and take legal advice where they refuse.

The OIA can consider complaints about provision of reasonable adjustments, as it will be considered disability discrimination.

You may also be entitled to Disabled Students Allowance as an alternative if the provider is being difficult about providing support, including up to £5,358 for specialist equipment, and up to £15,978 (part time) or £21,305 (full-time) for the cost of non-medical helpers such as note-takers.

Helpful links

Top 20 Tips How to Complain!

GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!

The OIA

QAA Quality Code on complaints

BAC complaints procedure for accredited centres

About the author

Ian Valentine is a sole-practitioner lawyer, specialising in consumer disputes and the law applying to Higher Education colleges. He is also currently the in-house lawyer for a group of three privately owned Higher and Further Education colleges delivering courses validated by four different universities, and has previously worked for two years as the in-house lawyer for another major west London provider of distance learning courses.
The above does not constitute and is no substitute for detailed, informed, legal advice. However, Ian Valentine offers a range of fixed fee and hourly rate legal and advice services for students and colleges at Glitnir Law. Colleges looking to improve their complaints handling policies and resolve complaints from students effectively can also contact Glitnir Law about policy review, dispute resolution, and terms and conditions drafting services.

 

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When the social media team turns anti-social…

Social media? What’s it about? It’s all about people.

It’s about people connecting with other people in their personal lives and about people connecting with people in their work lives, at companies and other organisations.

What can customers expect from social media exchanges with companies on Facebook and Twitter?  Well, they would hope that a straight question would be greeted with a straight answer, at all times and without unnecessary delays.

So, what happens when a person at a company seems to lose this basic ability to answer a straight question?

Well, it seems to happen a lot. And it happens around a very simple question. Have a look:

What’s the question being asked here?  It’s one of the most basic and easiest-to-answer questions a person can ask about any organisation when something has gone wrong:  Who is in charge? Who is the top person in the organisation?

Why does this matter?
It matters because when customers don’t get answers from “customer services”, or when “customer services” people are not empowered to make a difference, then it’s time to escalate the issue to the person who can make a difference, the Managing Director or CEO. This is the person who has executive power to intervene and resolve an issue that has gone on for too long or which is not being handled properly.

Why does the social media team suddenly become “anti-social”?
Social media teams have in general got better at handling customer enquiries and responding to questions in a timely manner. This is because using social media is a cost-effective way of connecting with customers and of helping them with their problems with a company’s product or service. And when it works well for customers, it can help enhance a company’s public image. But where a company does not respond on social media, or where questions are met with resistance, as shown above, then this can only have a negative effect on the customer’s view of a company.

There are several possible reasons why a social media team member is unable to answer a basic question of the type shown above:

  • Ignorance – They genuinely do not know who is the Managing Director or CEO of their own organisation – this is very unlikely, as everyone knows the name of their boss! And if an employee doesn’t know the name of their boss, what else do they not know? If they don’t understand their own company and its people, how can they possibly be of any use to anyone outside of it?
  • Outsourcing – The social media feed is being run by someone who does not work for the company and who doesn’t know the name of the boss of their client – this is also unlikely but possible… In this case a company that has outsourced its social media should ensure that the company providing service on Facebook and Twitter is fully informed about their client and its key people and can properly answer customers’ questions about it.
  • Lack of Empowerment – The social media person is not empowered to provide the information requested. This happens when a company does not entrust its social media staff with the power to make a difference to customer enquiries. If the social media person is unable tell a customer who is the boss, then he/she is also often unlikely to make a difference to customer service issues. Using a social media team, whether inside or outside the company, who are not empowered on a social media site is worse than not having a social media presence at all…
  • No Name policy – The dreaded “no name” policy… In these situations, the company has a policy which means that any questions asking for the names of people in an organisation are met with a blunt refusal to answer the question.

Does “No name” mean no responsibility?
A company “no name” policy is an unfortunate hangover from the 20th century, where companies would refuse to provide the names of their directors and staff, out of fear that they might be “poached” by other companies. In the 21st century some companies believe they can use a “no name” policy to shield their senior staff from their customers. Staff may do this because they believe the CEO should not have to deal with customers and/or because they think that it will expose the poor performance of the customer service team.

In a connected world of social media there is simply no place for a “no name” policy at any organisation. Any company or organisation that still has a “no name” policy in the 21st century needs to take a serious look at itself, its attitude to its customers and to the world in general.

Openness and Transparency are key
The companies that perform best at customer services, especially on social media, are those which are open with their customers about the problems they encounter and transparent about their organisation and the people who lead it and work for it. These companies are honest about situations when they mess up, they empower their staff to tell the truth and they allow their customers to make contact with the person who can make a real difference, the CEO or MD.

So, the next time you see a “social media” team on Facebook or Twitter being “anti-social” and telling you that he or she cannot tell you the name of the boss, demand to know why… then go and find the contact details for the boss on http://CEOemail.com   And take it to the top…!

 

Today’s guest post was written by Marcus Williamson 
Marcus Williamson is a journalist and consumer campaigner with a background in the Information Technology sector. In 2010 he established the website http://CEOemail.com which now helps more than 11,000 people every day to resolve consumer issues by escalating them to the individuals who can make a difference.

 

 

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It’s payback time for broken broadband

As followers of this blog and my social media know, I always bang on about telecoms being the sector for the worst customer service. One has to really know their rights and know how to complain effectively to get companies to pay out when they should.

Today however, Ofcom announced plans that may make it a little easier for customers. In a scheme similar to delay repay for trains Ofcom proposes to introduce a scheme whereby customers will no longer have to “fight tooth and nail” to get “fair compensation”, Ofcom said. It suggests that the plan (subject to consultation ending 5th June 2017) could benefit up to 2.6 million customers.

The payments would apply whenever services go wrong and are not fixed quickly enough. Slow repairs, missed deadlines and engineers’ visits that fail to happen as promised would all be covered.

This is good news although it will still be a case of making sure people know about the scheme if and when it is introduced. In 2013 Transport Focus found that almost 9 in 10 of passengers eligible for compensation for delays, did not claim. In 2016 it spoke to over 7000 passengers and found that the number claiming compensation has increased to 35 per cent in 2016. The research shows how few people are claiming what they are owed. One wonders if this will be similar.

Commuters always had rights regarding delays and in October 2016 The Consumer Rights Act 2015 brought rail into line with other service providers regarding providing services with reasonable skill and care. It really is a case of companies doing more to ensure that people know their rights.

To back up my point Ofcom said that there were 7.2 million instances that would be subject to compensation under its new proposals every year but that currently, only 1.1 million of these attracted payments. Given my regular complaining to Virgin Media over the years I am not surprised. I know my rights, I know how to complain effectively but still I meet continued bad service and fob offs. Having taken it to CISAS twice (and won) and gained redress more times than I can remember I can say with absolutely assurance that it has never been easy and always protracted with several emails. Most people a) don’t know their legal right and b) even if they do would understandably give up.

In response to the plan, BT, Sky and Virgin Media have issued their own draft proposal for automatic compensation through a voluntary code of practice. A Virgin Media spokesperson said: “It’s important that customers are treated fairly when services can’t be delivered, but this is best achieved through a robust industry-led approach.

“The industry is working together on ambitious reforms that would incentivise communications providers to compete to provide customers with a better service, while also setting minimum standards that providers would have to meet.”

Cynically, and with a lot of experience of Virgin Media, I would say that’s another way of saying “Our service is rubbish and we aint gonna improve it until we are forced to do it the same as everyone else. Whilst we can get away with not paying out we will.”

Ofcom proposes  a  scale of charges:

  • £10 for each calendar day that the service is not repaired
  • £30 for any time that an engineer fails to turn up for a scheduled appointment, or that it is cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice
  • £6 for each calendar day of delay at the start of a new service, including the missed start date.

Ofcom hopes that this will mean consumers will not have to go through a lengthy claims process. However, in the meantime you ARE still legally entitled to redress for the examples above and more. See All you need to know about complaining to telecom providers for more.

See 20 Top Tips for Complaining and How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results! for information, tips, advice and templates for complaining effectively to telecoms and other sectors.

 

 

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Plusnet gets a “minus” – and a big fine – for incorrect billing

Plusnet has become the latest telecom provider to be fined by the regulator Ofcom. The broadband and phone provider, owned by BT, has been fined £880,000 for billing former customers. It is the third provider in less than 6 months to be fined by Ofcom.

In October 2016 Vodafone was fined £4.6m for breaches of consumer protection laws and in January 2017 EE was fined approximately £2.7m for incorrect billing.

Plusnet faces a fine of £880,000 imposed by Ofcom for continuing to bill more than a thousand former customers for landline and broadband services. The case involves more than 1,000 ex-customers who were overcharged a total of more than £500,000.

Ofcom says in its press release:

“The penalty is the result of an investigation, which found that the telecoms company broke a fundamental billing rule by continuing to charge a group of customers for landline or broadband, after they had cancelled their service.

Once a customer cancels his or her home phone or broadband service, providers’ billing systems must recognise that the line is ‘ceased’. In this case, an error in Plusnet’s billing system meant that cancelled lines were still recognised as ‘live’.As a result, 1,025 customers who had cancelled either their landline or broadband service continued to be billed, meaning they were overcharged by more than £500,000 in total.

Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, said: “There can be no margin for error, and no excuses, when it comes to billing customers correctly.”

“This fine should serve as a reminder to telecoms companies that they must adhere to Ofcom’s billing rules at all times, or face the consequences.””

Ofcom says that Plusnet has attempted to refund all affected ex-customers. It has so far refunded 356 customers a total of £212,140, which included interest at a rate of 4% for each customer. Any remaining money, from former customers who could not be reached, has been donated to a dozen local charities. Plusnet has also clarified to Ofcom the steps it has taken to prevent any future billing errors of this kind.

Ofcom says that the fine, which must be paid to Ofcom within 20 working days, will be passed on to HM Treasury.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, telecoms really are the worst sector for customer service. It really needs a company to pull out all the stops and do things differently, risk not making any money for a while and then watch everyone flock to them for the customer service.

Useful information
Ofcom does not investigate individual claims. If you have a complaint about a telecom provider whether broadband, landline or mobile, see All you need to know about complaining to telecom providers which provides information and how to complain effectively to telecom providers.

See How to Complain; The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results! for tips, advice, consumer laws and templates for complaining effectively.

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Celebrate World Consumer Rights Day by shopping smarter online

Press release from The Complaining Cow

The 15th March 2017 is World Consumer Rights Day[1], organised and promoted by Consumers International[2]. This year’s theme is ‘Building a Digital World Consumers can Trust.

In a world where consumers are purchasing more and more online it becomes more important for people to know their rights and how to complain when things go wrong. So what are your rights when purchasing online? Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow consumer expert and author of How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results! shares much of what you need to know!

  • Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 you can reject any goods that are faulty, do not match the description or have not lasted a reasonable length of time. The seller must refund you and pay return postage in any of these events.
  • Up to 30 days after purchase you are entitled to a full refund for items that are not of satisfactory quality or do not match the description. After this time you may have to accept a repair or replacement.
  • If you have paid for a dated or timed delivery and this has not happened, you are entitled to any out of pocket expenses you incurred.
  • The above rules also apply to digital goods, such as downloaded computer software, games and films.
  • The Consumer Rights Act 2015 also states that goods must be delivered within the time frame agreed with the seller. If one hasn’t been agreed (you have agreed a time frame if the listing supplies a time frame) the trader must deliver ‘without undue delay’ and at the very latest not more than 30 days from the day after the contract is made. After this time you are entitled to a full refund.
  • The Consumer Rights Act 2015 provides specific coverage for digital content. Digital content must not be supplied by the retailer within the 14 cooling-off period unless the customer has agreed to it. Once the download starts the cancellation right is lost. If the customer does not give agree to the terms then s/he will have to wait until after 14 days before downloading.
  • Your contract is ALWAYS with the company (or individual) to whom you paid the money. It is not with the courier. Do not be fobbed off when the retailer tells you to contact the courier company. Make the retailer take the time and effort to resolve the situation. It is the retailer who will also have to provide the redress, if necessary, not the courier.
  • You may think you are covered by Section 75A of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 for items over £100 bought on a credit card. However, should you complete a credit card transaction through a third party payment service, the credit card provider and the seller are no longer in a direct relationship, so are not equally liable. This exception applies to PayPal, Worldpay and Google checkout, for example.

Too often consumers get fobbed off because they don’t know their rights. Dewdney says “By ensuring that these laws are observed, and seeking enforcement where necessary, consumers can make smarter choices when shopping online and get justice if things go wrong.”

For more information, advice, help and templates for complaining effectively see GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS! 

Note to editors:

  • World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) is an opportunity to promote the basic rights of all consumers, demanding that those rights are respected and protected, and a chance to protest against the market abuses and social injustices which undermine those rights. http://www.consumersinternational.org/our-work/wcrd/
  • WCRD was inspired by President John F Kennedy, who gave an address to the US congress on 15 March 1962, in which he formally addressed the issue of consumer rights. He was the first world leader to do so, and the consumer movement now marks that date every year as a means of raising global awareness about consumer rights. The first WCRD was observed on 15 March 1983, and has since become an important occasion for mobilising citizen action.

 

 

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