Not happy about something at uni?
Anything which affects your studies or experience at the university can be raised as a complaint. It's perfectly fine to ask for a decision to be changed, for an assignment to be re-marked or just to let the university know you're peeved about something. You can also raise a complaint about another student, a UNSW staff member or people external to the university whom you have interacted with as part of your study (for example on placement).
Arc's top three tips for dealing with problems at uni:
1. Talk to people!
Most university staff are pretty reasonable and want to help students out. We're all adults here. If you aren't happy with something, speak to the person who made the decision first. Listen to their point of view. Make sure you have all your facts straight and try to be clear about what outcome you want and that it is something achievable.
2. Don't wait too long.
The UNSW Student Complaints Procedure states that complaints should be lodged as soon as possible and at least within one year of the event or decision. It is much harder to deal with a complaint long after the event when memories are less clear.
3. Go to the right person.
The university's complaints process is hierarchical. This means that whenever possible you should take a complaint or concern to the person who has made the decision (for example, your teacher).
For an academic issue, you should always discuss the problem directly with your teacher. Schools also have grievance officers who can advise on problems and may assist with handling your complaint.
If you aren't satisfied with the outcome at this stage, or for other issues contact a more senior staff member in that division or school (such as the course coordinator or heard of school) and in some cases the dean or associate dean of the Faculty.
You can always lodge a complaint or appeal with the Student Conduct and Appeals Officer (SCAO) (email@example.com) but it is usually much better to keep the issue 'local' unless there are good reasons to go elsewhere.
If you have a serious complaint which you don't feel comfortable talking about with the person/s involved, you can get confidential advice from the SCAO (tel: 9385 8555). If your complaint is about bullying, harassment or discrimination you can also get advice from the Student Equity and Disabilities Unit (SEADU).
For research (PhD/MPhil/MRes) students, the first point of contact should always be your supervisor. If that fails, you need to talk to your postgraduate coordinator. Ongoing issues should be brought up at your Annual Progress Review.
Who can advise me about a complaint?
The SCAO can give you advice about the complaints process, the kinds of outcomes you might be able to get, and who to address the complaint to. If you want to talk to someone independent of the university, you can contact the student advocacy service at Arc (firstname.lastname@example.org), and we can advise how to approach the issue. Anything you tell us will stay completely confidential and cannot be disclosed to anyone at the university unless you ask us to.
How does the university handle complaints?
If you raise an issue through the informal process, you will generally be dealing with the person directly involved, although the matter may sometimes be referred to a most senior staff member in the school or area. If you are uncomfortable raising an issue directly with a person, you can approach a staff member with the appropriate level of authority (for example, your head of school). You and the respondent (the other person involved) can have a support person or neutral third party attend any interviews or meetings conducted as part of the process.
You should receive an outcome within 20 working days and no later than 30 working days after raising the issue.
If you make a formal complaint there are specific timeframes when things happen.
The UNSW complaints procedures say that you should receive an acknowledgement of your complaint from the SCAO within 5 working days, with information about your different sources of advice.
The SCAO then decides (1) whether to investigate the complaint under the formal procedure or (2) decide not to investigate the complaint.
The SCAO will determine the most appropriate means of handling the complaint. Usually this involves the Registrar appointing an Investigating Officer (a senior staff member at the University with authority to make decisions about dealing with the investigation) and who is not involved in a work area of either the complainant or the respondent.
The investigating officer contacts you and lets you know about how they will investigate, including if they need to interview you. Again, you can bring a 'support person' or neutral third party to meetings with the investigating officer.
The procedures say the normal turnaround time for the complaints process is 20 working days, and if more time is needed you are informed of this. When the complaint has been finalised, you'll get a letter from the Pro-Vice Chancellor (currently that's Professor Wai Fong Chua) letting you know the outcome.
Complaints Appeal Committee
This is the final stage in the appeals process at the university. The grounds for appeal are restricted to a complaint that you haven't been given procedural fairness (or natural justice) in the investigation process.
You won't be able to use the CAC simply if you don't like the result or disagree with it. Natural justice means:
- You have to be given an opportunity to present your case (the 'hearing' rule)
- The decision maker in your case must be unbiased
- The decision must be based on evidence
At the complaints appeal committee you can be represented by an advocate or lawyer (Arc can provide this service) or accompanied by a friend or advisor. We would recommend getting advice before lodging an appeal with the CAC.
At any time during the complaints process you can take a complaint to a number of external agencies, including the NSW Ombudsman, the Anti-Discrimination Board and the Australian Human Rights Commission. It is usually more productive to try and deal with a problem within the university first, though.
If you contact the Ombudsman first, they will ask you about the steps you've taken to try and deal with the issue with the university.
Are there repercussions if I make a complaint?
Harming or disadvantaging someone because they raise an issue or make a complaint is victimisation. It's taken very seriously at UNSW and the complaints procedures and can be grounds for staff or student disciplinary action. If you do make a complaint and believe you're being victimised because of it, tell the SCAO immediately.
Dos and don'ts of making complaints:
- If you are going to make a complaint work out what you want to achieve and make sure this is proportionate to the situation. Does someone really deserve to be sacked because they failed you in an assignment?
- Be clear and realistic about what outcomes you are hoping for. Asking for 'justice' doesn't help.
- Think about the options and alternative ways to deal with a problem
- Be respectful. If you are very upset about something that has happened, ask a friend to read over any emails you want to send, or get advice from Arc.
- Say how a decision has affected you and why it is unfair or unreasonable
- Support your complaint with references to university policy (if relevant)
- Speak to the person who made the decision
- Provide supporting material to back up your complaint (if relevant).
- Please don't use the complaints process to get back at someone, or just to whinge.
- Don't become personal in complaints. Focus on the issue, not the person who has made a decision you don't like.
- Don't send complaint emails when you are angry or very tired (or you've had a drink or two).
- Don't use emails or Facebook to release anger toward the university or people in it. What you say in emails, letters or online about people in the university can be defamatory or if it is harassing or aggressive, can become grounds for a student misconduct complaint.
Think carefully about what you say in emails and DON'T send emails to the Vice-Chancellor, newspapers or the Prime Minister because you think that will get more attention on the issue. It may but your complaint isn't likely to be treated as sympathetically if you are unreasonable in the way you present it. If you're planning to make a formal complaint in writing, we can look at your draft and make some suggestions for you on what to say/not to say.
UNSW Student Complaints Procedure
All University policy:
Access to information:
Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW
Australian Human Rights Commission