Credit: Johnny Briggs via Unspash

The complaint conundrum

By Melanie Goldberg

A look at the various complaints systems at the University, and areas in which they are failing us, and could be improved

The University of Glasgow has almost 30,000 students and almost 9,000 members of staff, which can be intimidating to say the least. Particularly now during a global pandemic, students are facing unprecedented issues and support in place seems vague and ambiguous; most students go through their whole university career without ever interacting with their personal tutor or any high ranking University official. Whilst the grandeur of the Gilmorehill campus and the sheer number of students can initially seem threatening, there are in fact many systems in place to assist students, should they require it – harassment, bullying, intimidation, assault and discrimination should not be considered a normalcy, and students are encouraged to report issues to the correct bodies. However, for many students, the most conducive and viable options are still unclear, even for those having been here for years, and many say that there are too many systems in place with too many overlaps that can become unnecessarily complicated.

There are numerous reporting systems, all with different guidelines and procedures; Report and Support, the senate, the complaints department, the student bodies (SRC, GUSA, GUU and QMU), and even separate institutions such as the Glasgow School of Art and the International College, many of whom allow students to join certain clubs and societies at the university and therefore occasionally see issues arise. All operate under separate procedures but along very similar guidelines, each having their own Equality and Diversity Policies and Complaints Procedures.

The Student Representative Council (SRC) is the main representative student union on campus, whose purported chief aim is to represent and support students in all aspects of university life. The SRC advice centre is available to any student for advice and support on issues ranging from bullying and harassment to accommodation and rent, and there are several different avenues in place to make a complaint. A stage two complaint is an issue deemed serious enough to merit a direct report to the permanent secretary and for issues considered irreconcilable through dialogue. With a guarantee of a 20-working day turnaround, a resolution should be quick and concise. Where the outcome is not considered adequate by the complainant, appeals are not permitted. Regarding complaints about SRC executives and other full-time employees, the procedure is unclear.

Even for somebody, such as myself, who has at some point gone through many of these pathways, there are many inconsistencies with the processes and a notable lack of communication between the different university bodies. In a report I attempted to file last year regarding discrimination I had experienced in a sports club, I was ferried between GUSA and the SRC, both of whom claimed it was the other’s responsibility and was subsequently advised to report to senate and the complaints department due to the complicated nature of the report – which involved several parties at this point. After filing a report with the senate, I was then informed that the student in question was not a student at the university, but at the international college. Then took place an additional process of contacting the international college. Moreover, I was continuing to liaise with the complaints department regarding what I considered was an inadequate response by the club in question, and a lack of support from the student bodies. Almost seven months later, I am yet to receive an adequate response from the complaints department after receiving contradicting replies, some claiming to open an investigation and some claiming to refuse. This experience was disappointing to say the least, as were many subsequent experiences.

Several issues are evident here, but most notably a lack of clarification on where responsibility lies and a breakdown in communication between the different departments and myself. There absolutely needs to be more communication between departments – not only to increase the efficacy of the process, but to support students who may be experiencing what is already a very distressing situation. Student support and wellbeing must be the priority of these systems and of the University. It is clear that in many instances, vulnerable students have been failed by the university. If one is unable to elicit a response from one department, other departments are reluctant to get involved, which can leave a student’s complaint in a precarious and ambiguous position. Moreover, students themselves are not equipped to deal with these complaints. The University must consolidate responsibility to trained professionals. Not only are these students largely ineffective at dealing with these situations, the impact on their own mental health can be damaging. 

Speaking to postgraduate student Ellie O’Keefe Wilson, who has had experience with the complaints procedure; “I found the complaints procedure to be largely ineffective in achieving any substantive change. Myself and others made complaints to GUSA about the conduct of one GUSA club, however it seemed that as the organisation was still organised by students of the University, they were more focused in maintaining the status quo and not stepping on the toes of any friendships they had, than making any of the tough (but necessary) decisions”.

The University senate has an infamous reputation on campus; the threat of a report to the senate, especially on grounds of academic misconduct, is one that instills terror into every student. In spite of the intimidating reputation, according to the university website the senate exists and functions to support students’ wellbeing “honestly, fairly, equitably and consistently”. With over 40 different categories of complaints, they deal with issues ranging from academic misconduct to bullying and their policies are updated annually. The specification of each department allows a more nuanced and effective treatment of reports. My personal experience with the senate has generally been very positive, with swift replies to emails and responses to situations, the senate is my go-to system with more serious complaints. 

It is difficult to tell whether the failure of the complaints systems is a result of the procedure, or simply because many of the issues reported are just not taken seriously. There is a pressing question of whether it’s just the failure of the University, or a failure of the law. The University can only operate under the parameters of the law, whether it could be considered morally wrong or not. If an issue is not enshrined in law, then the University does not have any legal obligation to handle said complaint, just a moral one. 

There are so many advantages to having such a vast amount of support systems in place for students. There is potential for success – however, the lack of communication between departments, the disjointedness of the procedures, and the absence of clarity over what each individual procedure actually does has disenfranchised many students and discouraged them from coming forward. Let this not be a discouragement from reporting, but a collective encouragement for the improvement of our support systems. 


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