Student complaint behaviour in a higher education institution

Millward, Christine Vanessa (2015). Student complaint behaviour in a higher education institution. EdD thesis The Open University.



Universities in the English higher education sector are increasingly concerned about the impact of students’ complaints. The introduction of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) in 2004 sees rising numbers of students referring their dissatisfaction externally and the subsequent publishing of OIA decisions against named universities from 1st April 2012 places students’ complaints as high risk for reputational damage. With minimal empirical research evidencing the student complaint experience, higher education stakeholders perceive the introduction of tuition fees and an associated discourse of consumer entitlement to be the drivers of student dissatisfaction. Taking a pragmatic approach, this case study explores the influences on student complaint behaviour at Riverside University, a post-1992 ‘new’ university with a widening participation mission. Grounded Theory techniques are utilised to analyse students’ written complaints submitted to the university across a period of four academic years, 2006-2007 to 2009-2010. The focus on the students’ perspective is supported by illustrative comments from complainants’ online interviews. Analysis demonstrates that the complaint journey is highly emotional and stressful as complainants interact with a culture that is not receptive to dissatisfied students. It also exposes the layered nature of complaints in a higher education environment: the ‘trigger’ issue initiating complaint behaviour sits over matters of previously suppressed discontent which subsequently shape the nature of the complaint. The research concludes that complaint behaviour is not linked to consumerist principles; students are not influenced by the level of fees paid. Complaints focus on assessment failure and degree classifications. Students’ disappointment with an assessment result is the significant motivator of complaint behaviour. Reaction to their academic standing represents the duality of students’ understanding of higher education: achievement is expected as a transactional process and carries instrumental aspirations for their future, which some articulate in terms of employment. The focus on the value of their award as embodying hopes for their future is a unifying influence on student complaint behaviour across the diversity of the student complaint body.

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