An all-purpose model ‘consumer’ complaints procedure? The new Scottish model

The Scottish Public Sector Ombudsman provides a service for student complainants in Scotland based strictly on the consumer relationship.

The Ombudsman provides model  student complaints procedures for further and higher education,  including separate guides for providers and for students.

The SPSO defines complaints very broadly as ‘an expression of dissatisfaction by one or more customers about the college’s action or lack of action, or about the standard of service provided by the college or on its behalf.’

Its ‘What can I complain about?’ list includes items which assume a variety of legal relationships between student and provider:

  • the quality and standard of any service we provide
  • the quality of our facilities and learning resources
  • the quality and standards of academic services and personal support services available to you
  • the quality and standards of administrative processes
  • unfair treatment by a student or staff member.

(Further Education College guidance for students)

Who can complain?

The SPSO casts the net for potential consumer-complainants very widely.  It embraces ‘complaints from anyone who receives, requests or is affected by [the provider’s] services’.  Could this include local residents annoyed by noise from student accommodation?

The complaints procedure

The basic processes for investigating complaints ‘are the same for students, members of the public and applicants to the Institution’

A new kind of two-stage process is proposed.

The first stage is called ‘frontline’ and it must be completed within five working days.  The principle is that complaints are best tackled when the problem first arises and in the part of the organisation where that happens, ‘face-to-face, by phone, in writing or by email’.

Members of staff to whom complaints are made are expected to consider some key questions at the very beginning:

  • Is this a complaint or should the individual be referred to another procedure?
  • What specifically is the complaint (or complaints) about and which area(s) of the Institution is /are involved?
  • What outcome is the complainant hoping for and can it be achieved?
  • Is this complaint straightforward and likely to be resolved with little or no investigation?
  • Can the complaint be resolved on the spot by providing an apology /explanation / alternative solution?
  • Can another member of staff assist in seeking a frontline resolution?
  • What assistance can be provided to the complainant in taking this forward?
  • Resolution may be achieved by providing an on-the-spot explanation of why the issue occurred and/or an apology and, where possible, what will be done to stop this happening in the future.

How will alternative dispute resolution and particularly mediation fit in at this stage?

The second stage is formal investigation

How will alternative dispute resolution and particularly mediation fit in at this stage?


The SPSO takes a broad view of what should be permitted by way of support and representation for complainants.  Students may authorise their parents or appoint professional legal representation.

In further education colleges it is assumed that there will not only be support for complainants at the college’s expense but possible also provision of legal representation:

The college will support individuals or organisations wishing to complain about an aspect of its service. This is because we want to understand the nature of the complaint and how it might need to respond if a service is substandard or failing. This may include involving outside support, e.g. advocacy services, to help the customer.

Is it safe to apologise?

SPSO guidance on apology is provided separately from the new guidance for further and higher education at:

This envisages apology principally as a means of mending personal relationships and does not touch on the concerns about admitting liability which commonly inhibit the making of apologies.

The SPSO guidance recommends

Recording complaints and learning lessons

The Institution [should have] structured systems for recording complaints, their outcomes and any resulting action so that the complaint data can be used for internal reporting as indicated below.

The Complaints Investigator will always satisfy themselves that all parties involved understand the findings of the investigation and any decisions made. Senior management will ensure that the Institution has procedures in place to act on issues that are identified. These procedures facilitate:

  • using complaints data to identify the root cause of complaints
  • taking action to reduce the chance of this happening again
  • recording the details of corrective action in the complaints file
  • systematically reviewing complaints performance reports to improve performance.