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Subject Quality Grievances

Many students have been voicing concerns about the relative quality of their subjects since the University moved to online teaching as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. As these concerns were widespread, UMSU initially took a campaign approach to the issue, surveying over 6400 students on their experiences and reporting back to the University. You can read that report here.

As you will see, UMSU has consistently linked the issue of diminished educational quality with a case for fee relief. Unfortunately the University has continued to deny there have been changes in the quality of any of its subjects, and fails to acknowledge the experience of students in this regard.

We now believe the next step is for students to individually, or as subject cohorts collectively, lodge formal grievances regarding any experiences of diminished quality in the teaching and learning environment. The Student Complaints and Grievances Policy sets out how complaints are managed at the University, and we can assist you through the grievance process.

Rapid Transition to Online Teaching and Subject Quality

The University has been undertaking a large-scale transition to online course delivery and assessment in an attempt to maximise most students’ opportunities to study effectively and successfully. UMSU appreciates that this strategy serves students’ interests, allowing them to potentially graduate on time, while ideally maintaining the quality and standards of their degrees. However, it is clear from student feedback that there has not been a completely uncompromised transition to online coursework. There are clearly some subjects and disciplines where the transition to online modes remains insufficient to match the experience it replaces.

Is this your situation?

Firstly we should note that it is insufficient basis for a grievance simply that you are unhappy that your subject has been moved to an online mode of delivery. That is, if the general quality and educational experience otherwise remains unchanged, the mere fact that you are doing an online subject will not be grounds to complain. Obviously the University did not want to begin teaching its subjects online, and has only done so as a result of COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Government, and in line with Commonwealth medical advice.

However, if there is objective evidence that the University has held out learning outcomes to you – for example in its handbook or undergraduate or graduate prospectus – which are not being delivered under the changed arrangements, then you may have grounds to complain. Not all subjects are equally suited to online delivery. The University has cancelled a number of subjects that are impossible to deliver online, however some subjects continue to run with a mild diminution of academic experience, and others are running arguably despite a major dilution of educational quality.

Particularly where you can demonstrate a major decrease in the quality of your subject, a grievance may have merit.

How to Frame a Complaint on Subject Quality

If you believe there has been a significant change to your educational experience this semester as a result of the transition to online subject delivery, you will need to objectively demonstrate this by providing concrete and specific examples of how what is being delivered is different from the published curriculum, learning outcomes or experiences previously offered in person/on campus.

Where there is clearly documented disparity between previous or advertised teaching and learning practice AND this disparity could reasonably be inferred to suggest a diminution or dilution of the educational experience and/or learning outcomes – then this should be the basis of your complaint.

For example, you might look to the following indicators which are indicative (but not exhaustive) of how quality may be diminished:

  • Learning and Employment Outcomes;
  • Contact Hours and Interaction with Academic Staff;
  • Lecture content;
  • Practical Learning;
  • Subjects involving artistic practice; and/or
  • Subjects requiring peer interaction.

Critically, you need to establish a nexus between what you were lead to expect in the subject, and on what basis you expected this (eg. handbook, previous experience of the subject on campus etc).

If you have read through the above, and believe you might have a basis to complain, then read on.

The Grievance Procedure

The grievance procedure has three stages: informal attempts at resolution, formal grievance lodged with Academic Registrar, and Appeals to the Academic Board. The process is “lock-step” in that you need to demonstrate you have exhausted each stage before proceeding to the next. Additionally, there are indicative timelines for each stage which means that if an attempt to resolve the problem is going nowhere or efforts to contact staff are not fruitful, then it is possible to escalate the grievance to the next stage.

The first step in seeking an informal resolution is to approach the person directly involved in the decision or situation that you are unhappy with. In this context, if you are unhappy with specific aspects of online subject delivery, you must first raise your concerns with the relevant subject coordinator. For example, where you have experienced poor recorded lecture quality, reduction in opportunities for meaningful interaction, or significant diminution of contact hours, these issues should be raised with the subject coordinator in writing.

Once you have done this, if you remain aggrieved because the response is that there will be no changes or improvements, you can formalise your complaint into a grievance.

The formal stage of the grievance procedure involves putting your concerns in writing. We can advise you on both the structure of your submission and the content, as well as how to lodge the formal grievance. In your submission you should state specifically what the problem with the subject delivery is, what you have already done to resolve the problem, and what you want to happen. Stick to the facts and attach copies of relevant documents.You can get started with this one which is set out to help you capture the expectations over the delivered experience in a subject quality complaint. Send us your draft, and we can provide feedback to ensure your arguments are clear and compelling.

The University should respond within five working days to acknowledge receipt of your letter, and should inform you of their decision in no more than 15 working days.

If you are unhappy with the decision regarding your formal grievance, the final recourse within the University is an Appeal to the Academic Board. The determination of the appeals committee is final, and consequently it is really important to get assistance from us in drafting your appeal submission. We are also available to attend appeal hearings with you as your representative, given sufficient notice.

Additionally, if your complaint is about teaching quality, you can contact the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) to submit a complaint. TEQSA does not respond directly to complaints, however it will record your complaint as part of its quality assurance and compliance.

Once all of the University procedures for resolving grievances have been exhausted, complaints can be directed to the Victorian Ombudsman (see the University’s page on the Role of the Ombudsman in Reviewing Universities’ Decisions).

You might also consider submitting a complaint to Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on the basis of consumer guarantees.

Please note that before complaining to an external body, it is necessary to try to resolve your problem through the University’s internal procedures.

Video Explainer: The Australian Consumer Law

Disclaimer: The information in this video is designed and intended to provide general information in summary form on legal topics, current at the time of publication, for general information purposes only. It is not legal advice, it is legal information only. If you need advice about your specific circumstances, obtain legal advice.