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Report of the Council on student complaints

The COUNCIL beg leave to report to the University as follows:

1. The purpose of this report is to set out proposals for dealing with complaints by students, in addition to the specific procedures which already exist in the University for the review of the results for postgraduate examinations, and for the results of undergraduate and similar examinations, and for dealing with particular student problems, in particular racial and sexual harassment. The Council have been advised by a working party chaired successively by Dr J. A. Leake and Dr G. A. Reid, and have consulted Faculty Boards and Heads of Departments, and other authorities, about proposals on the lines set out below. Those consulted have generally welcomed the proposals.

2. Colleges have their own arrangements for dealing with complaints by their own students. The Senior Tutors' Committee have recently issued guidance to Colleges about the nature of College procedures. A particular complaint cannot normally be pursued under both University and College procedures.

3. The Council propose a procedure of three stages: Advice; Informal Process; and Formal Process. The Council propose details of these stages in the Appendix to this Report. A further stage, Review, would be through the quasi-visitatorial review jurisdiction which is proposed for the Commissary (see the Council's Second Report, Reporter, 2000-01 p. 696) and which has been approved by the Regent House.

4. In addition, Universities UK have under consultation proposals, which the Council welcome, for a national Independent Review for student complaints. Should the UUK proposal be advanced satisfactorily, the Council hope that the University will be able to subscribe to it. If it is introduced it would represent a fourth stage (likely only to be needed in respect of students if the University dealt unreasonably with recommendations from the Independent Reviewer).

5. The Council intend to monitor complaints under the proposed arrangements through the Student Matters Committee. Reports submitted to that Committee would be referred also to the Education Committee of the General Board.

6. The Council believe that the proposed arrangements should be regulated by Ordinance. They propose a short regulation as set out in paragraph 7, and would expect, subject to any remarks made at the Discussion of this Report and to any further consideration, to approve as the procedure required by the regulations, the draft procedure set out in the Appendix to this Report.

7. The Council therefore recommend that approval be given to the following regulation:


The Council shall publish and keep under review a procedure for determining complaints by members of the University in statu pupillari.

10 December 2001 ALEC N. BROERS,


Draft student complaints procedure proposed by the Council

The University is committed to high quality of educational and other provision for students, and encourages students to say where there is cause for concern in individual or general matters. It undertakes to take such representation seriously. In raising possible issues of complaint students will themselves be aware of and have observed their obligations as members of the University.

The University aims to handle complaints in a way which is sympathetic, fair, and efficient, which encourages informal conciliation, facilitates early resolution, maintains individual privacy and confidentiality, and permits useful feedback.

This procedure is for all people matriculated as students in the University, undergraduate and postgraduate. Non-matriculated students have their own procedures (for example under the Board of Continuing Education).

A complaint will normally be about a problem encountered by a student in connection with educational or other activities or services provided by the University. It will not necessarily be against anybody, whether a person or an institution, although some complaints may be against individuals or University institutions. Complaints principally arising about matters covered by other specific procedures (such as those for the review of graduate or undergraduate examination results, or the codes of practice about racial and sexual harassment) should be raised under those procedures.

Because the purpose of the complaints procedure is, if possible, to resolve problems, a complaint should be made promptly, in an attempt to resolve them quickly and informally. The procedure, therefore, has three stages, and the Council hope that most problems will be solved in the first two stages of advice, and informal process. The three stages are:

(i) Discussion and Advice
(ii) Informal Process
(iii) Formal Process

Each stage is described in a later section.

A fourth stage of formal quasi-visitatorial review (which will be open to all members of the University) is under consideration.

Some general points about the procedure

The student is entitled to fair and independent consideration of a complaint. The rights of the student and the rights of any person complained against are both important and must be kept in balance. Every effort will be made to ensure that both are treated with fairness and dignity. Complaints will not be treated as though lodged against the University unless that is stated to be the case. There will be separation between the provision for advice and provision for dealing with or adjudicating on a complaint. The student should not suffer retaliation for making a complaint in good faith and a student who believes that he or she has suffered a reprisal should raise the matter. If a complaint which is not upheld is found to have been made maliciously, the student may be subject to disciplinary procedure.

The student may withdraw a complaint or stop the process at any time in Stage 1 or 2 and, in Stage 3, with the consent of the Chairman of the panel. Personal privacy will be respected. Confidential information will not be communicated without the consent of the student, other than in exceptional circumstances (for example in reporting an alleged criminal offence to the Police). The student has a free choice of adviser and of representative, who need not be the same person. Normally this would be a College Tutor, but students are free to go to someone else if they prefer.

Complaints will be dealt with promptly to ensure that delay does not hinder fair resolution. Minor complaints will normally be resolved at an early stage.

A complaint can only be brought by a student affected, although several affected students may act together. A particular complaint cannot normally be pursued under both University and College procedures.

If a complaint is upheld there should be a satisfactory remedy or outcome, which may include:

a full explanation;
an apology (which is not an admission of liability);
the matter put right if possible;
if appropriate, some kind of financial recompense (for example if the student had paid for something which he or she did not receive);
if appropriate, disciplinary action may be taken.

Written records will be kept of complaints. The student will have access to the documents submitted about his or her case, and those taking part in the complaint will be informed that this is so. Otherwise the records will be confidential. An annual report will be made to the Council and the General Board, in which references to individual cases will be made anonymously.

Stage 1: Discussion and Advice

1.1. It is very important to get early advice about problems. Often, this can resolve the matter quickly and informally.

1.2. Normally, a student would seek the advice of a College officer such as a Tutor, or Director of Studies, or if a graduate student their University Supervisor.

Other possibilities include:

other relevant members of the academic staff of the University;
the University Counselling Service;
the Disability Resource Centre;
appropriate advisers or mentors in University Faculties or Departments;
officers of CUSU (e.g. the welfare officer, the academic affairs officer, or the women's officer) or the President of the Graduate Union;
administrative staff of Faculties and Departments;
appropriate officers of the Central Administration (e.g. for graduate students, officers in the office of the Board of Graduate Studies).

1.3. The student can expect to be given advice on how to proceed and on an appropriate course of action, advice about what would constitute an appropriate remedy, and an opportunity to consider whether there is indeed a complaint to be addressed. The student will then be in a position to decide whether to proceed further, and how.

Stage 2: Informal Process

2.1. It is in the interest of the students that a complaint to be dealt with informally should be raised at the 'local' level (in the Faculty, Department, or relevant University service) as soon as possible. If there has been a delay the student should explain the reason. The student should if possible record the complaint in writing (the advice about a written statement in Stage 3 may be helpful).

2.2. The student should if possible raise the complaint directly with the person responsible for the matter. It may not always be easy to do this if the complaint is about the conduct of this person: if for some reason the student cannot go direct to the person alone he or she should ask for someone else to be present, or should raise the matter with another person in the organization concerned (the Head, Deputy Head, or Secretary of the organization, or a person or persons nominated for the purpose).

2.3. If possible a suitable solution will be agreed and implemented, to solve the problem.

2.4. If the student is dissatisfied with the outcome of such an informal process, he or she may consider whether to raise the matter formally through Stage 3.

Stage 3: Formal Process

3.1. Students must exhaust informal routes before making a formal complaint, or give a good reason for not doing so. A good reason might be that the problem is particularly serious, or that when it was raised informally there was refusal to deal with it. Informal processes are suitable for dealing with many problems, but if a complaint includes very serious allegations, and especially where a person complained against must have an opportunity to give his or her side of the matter, it may be necessary to refer straight to Stage 3. If informal routes seem not to have been exhausted a formal complaint may be referred to informal resolution.

3.2. A student wishing to make a formal complaint must do so in writing. The written statement initiates the formal process and must include a description of what has happened to give rise to the complaint including dates, times, and other details. It is necessary to show that something has gone wrong in the discharge of a duty towards the student, and that the student has suffered as a result. The statement should include:

the name of the person or institution against whom/which the complaint is made (but a complaint need not necessarily be against a person or institution);
the name of any witnesses who will corroborate the complaint, including a written statement from each to say that they have given their consent;
documentary evidence, together with a list of contents and numbered pages;
an outline of what action a student would like to be taken or what remedy he or she is seeking;
if desired, the name of the person who has agreed to accompany, support, or represent the student at any meeting or hearing.

It would almost always be sensible for the student to discuss the written statement of the complaint with an appropriate adviser (for example those named in paragraph 1.2). The complaint should be addressed to The Registrary at the University Offices, The Old Schools, Cambridge.

3.3. The complaint will be referred to a Panel for consideration. The Panel will consist of three members:

a Chairman, who will normally be legally qualified, or have had judicial or quasi-judicial experience;
at least one senior member of the University, not connected with the College or Department of the student;
one student member not connected with the College or Department of the student (unless the student requests that there should not be a student on the Panel, in which case a second senior member will be identified).

3.4. The University Council will approve lists of persons in each of the above categories. The members of the Panel for a particular complaint will be designated by the Registrary (or an officer indicated by him). The student will have an opportunity to object, for good cause, to a person designated, and the Chairman of the Panel will rule on such objection (or the Registrary will rule if the objection is to the Chairman).

3.5. The written statement of complaint will also be referred by the Registrary to any person or institution concerned. They will be asked to make a written response, which will be referred to the Panel.

3.6. Normally, the Chairman of the Panel will arrange for the Panel to hear representations about the complaint. At such a hearing the student will present his or her case, and any person or institution complained against will reply. Witnesses or others making statements will be heard at the discretion of the Panel. The student (and any person or institution concerned) may speak in person or be represented. Notice of the hearing shall be given to the student, and any person to whom notice of a complaint has been given. At the end of the hearing the Panel shall consider their decision in private, and shall notify it in writing as soon as possible, with reasons.

3.7. The Panel may make recommendations as to the remedies, if any, to be adopted.

3.8. The Chairman of the Panel shall have power to terminate the proceedings, to determine that a complaint is to be rejected as vexatious or frivolous, or to refer the complaint for informal resolution as in Stage 2.

3.9. Legal representation and legal advice would not normally be necessary. Exceptionally, the University Council will consider on its merits any request for financial assistance towards legal advice or legal representation for the student or a person complained against.

3.10. No documents should be taken into consideration, which are not available to the student, the Panel, and any person or institution concerned. The Chairman of the Panel may request the disclosure of documents requested by the student or any person or institution concerned. The Chairman should seek to ensure that appropriate safeguards are made for confidentiality of disclosed documents.

3.11. The Registrary shall nominate an administrative officer to act as secretary of the Panel. This officer shall have the right to be present throughout the whole proceedings of the Panel, and shall draft the reasoned decision of the Panel and a report on the proceedings, for use in connection with monitoring and the preparation of the annual report on complaints.


A complaint shall be made under Stage 2 or Stage 3 within three months of the occurrence of the matter complained about, unless the Chairman of the Panel at his or her discretion rules otherwise, for good cause.

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Cambridge University Reporter 12 December 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.