How to complain – and be heard



Before I started my PhD I worked as a complaint handler of various sorts, for almost 14 years. My last two years were spent overseeing student complaints and misconduct at UNSW, and prior to that I worked as a complaint investigator for a government oversight body (a job which included handling complaints about public universities). I moved into this work after being employed by student organisations, where a significant amount of my time was devoted to assisting students with their complaints or advocating on their behalf.

Universities are big places with complex administrative structures. Things can, and will, go wrong. Doing a degree involves relationships with other human beings, not least of all, for research students, supervisors. A university is not some ideal place separate from the rest of the community; problems can arise that are not even related directly to a course of study – things like poor security at night, broken facilities, harassment or discrimination.

For most students, the problems will be temporary and relatively easily dealt with. Taking up a complaint with the person concerned is the usual, and usually successful, first step. Most complaints never get lodged under formal complaint policies, however this is not always the case as some disputes and concerns cannot be resolved so simply. Making a complaint can be extremely stressful process, particularly for research students and particularly regarding issues about supervision. In fact, in my experience, this relationship is at the centre of most formal complaints.

Below are my six key tips for making complaints, but also for simply thinking about how to approach problems.

Act earlier rather than later

The best way to deal with problems is usually directly with the person concerned, even if it’s your supervisor. Raising problems and concerns directly with them, in an informal and open way, can clear the air and allow for a resolution to be discussed. While not all supervisors react well to a student raising concerns, in my experience most do. Raising a concern as early as possible can mean you give both parties the best chance of sorting through an issue.

I don’t want to suggest this is easy to do. Nor is it always easy to see that a problem is growing – especially in the early stages. Sometimes it is only when something is ‘big’, that we recognise it needs to be addressed.

When should you read the policy and procedures?

Most people do not read university policies and procedures until they need them, and it is no different with procedures around how to make a complaint. That said, I suggest every student searches ‘student complaint’ on their university homepage and establishes the general complaint process at their institution.

Some universities have complaints units or University Ombudsman who provide advice, but others do not. Some universities procedures are set out in non-technical language on the website, whereas other intuitions seem to relish hiding their long and complex policies in a difficult to locate place. Just try to find out the general lay of the land at your place of study. It is useful, for instance, to know if your university has time limits on lodging complaints.

You should also be aware that students at PUBLIC universities (and TAFE colleges and institutes) in Australia are able to lodge complaints with the Ombudsman Office for their state or territory. You do not have to be a domestic/local student to use this service, overseas students (including ones based overseas) can also lodge complaints with Ombudsman Offices. International students at private universities and education providers can contact the Overseas Student Ombudsman.

Put it in writing!

Complaints are best lodged in writing, although in universities it is often that this is done via email. Make sure you include the following and that there is a logical order to your letter:

  • Your contact details and student number
  • The date
  • What decision or who the complaint is about
  • A brief overview of the complaint – including dates and times, explanation of key events, any details you think are important.
  • Any evidence to support your complaint (or the records of you previously trying to resolve the matter more informally)
  • Advise if you have complained elsewhere and any outcome of that complaint
  • What you want done about the complaint
  • When you would like a response by (and if there is a particular urgency to your matter such as a university deadline). But ensure you are realistic and understand that university staff are busy (and complaint handlers mostly have many matters they are trying to resolve).
  • Attach copies of all relevant documents.

Put everything in your complaint – it is poor form to hold back relevant information as it can delay resolving a matter and frustrate the person considering your matter. However, swamping your complaint with irrelevant information can do the same – so be succinct

Even if you raise a complaint via a conversation with someone, either by phone or in person, keep a record of what happened. This can be useful later if the matter is not resolved and you need to go to a more senior staff member or an external body. You can also create a record of your discussion by emailing the person concerned after the conversation to confirm your understanding of what was discussed and what the next action might be.

Use your student organisation

This one is simple: use your student organisation!

Most universities in Australia have student representative bodies, and many employ experienced student advocates and welfare advisors. These people are there to give you advice. It may be you want to talk through an issue and get an outsiders’ view. It may be that your department has raised an issue with your progress, which you feel is unreasonable, and you need advice on how to proceed. It may be the issue is a serious one, such as sexual harassment or racism, and you need support in lodging an official complaint. Whatever the issue – big or small – a student organisation is a source of confidential advice, support, and advocacy.

At many universities there are separate and independent postgraduate associations. If there is not a postgrad association at yours, then contact the student union or other student body and find out if they can assist you. If you have no student association who can assist you, depending on the matter you may be able to seek independent advice from a community legal centre.

Some universities also have, as mentioned above, complaints units and Ombudsman who give advice. Others have trained grievance officers who can explain the process to you (but mostly they cannot advocate for you as a student association can).

Take a productive approach

It is normal to be apprehensive when a complaint is underway – few people like complaining, and it takes time and emotional energy to see it through.

For research students, complaints can be particularly fraught in small departments or in situations where you feel there might be negative consequences to raising a concern. These sorts of concerns can be discussed with a student association adviser, or if your university has school grievance advisers with that person. Some universities, such as UNSW, have a staff member within the Graduate Research School who can provide confidential advice.

We should always keep in mind that university staff are largely very professional in dealing with complaints, and do not set out to dismiss concerns out of hand or to seek some sort of retribution against students. While students always worry about this, cases of reprisal against complaints are rare and university policies usually expressly forbid it (with severe consequences if it does occur).

Being more specific than asking for ‘justice’

When things go wrong, people often fell they are seeking justice through their complaint. This is something I heard many times as a complaint handler. The problem with ‘seeking justice’ as your outcome, is that it is amorphous and vague. It is also something than cannot be delivered necessarily, without knowing what a person’s specific requests for a resolution are. When you make a complaint say what you think should be done about your complaint. It may be that the problem can be fixed or mitigated, if so then so say how. It may be the problem can’t be fixed or undone, but that you want an apology for what has gone wrong. There are many options for resolution.

Author Bio: Elizabeth Humphrys is completing a PhD in political economy at the University of Sydney and blogs at ‘Left Flank’. Elizabeth’s former life was handling complaints about government agencies and public institutions, with a particular focus on complaints about universities.