What is a Complaint?

This is an important question because it determines whether the issue needs to be handled in accordance with the requirements of the Complaints Procedure. If it is a ‘complaint’ then:

  • A response must be given within five working days (Stage 1) or within twenty working days (Stage 2)
  • A record of the matter must be made and submitted to the Senate Office so that it can be included in the figures reported to the Ombudsman/the Scottish Funding Council.

This guidance includes the basic definition of a complaint and provides advice on how to tell whether that definition applies to the situation that you are dealing with.


The basic definition of a complaint given in the Complaints Procedure is:

'An expression of dissatisfaction by one or more individuals about the standard of service, action or lack of action by or on behalf of the University.'

A complaint may relate to:

  • the quality and standard of teaching and support, facilities or learning resources;
  • attitude, treatment or inappropriate behaviour of a staff member or contractor;
  • administrative processes;
  • dissatisfaction with University policy, although it is recognised that policy is set at the discretion of the University.

The following are not complaints:

  • a routine, first-time request for a service. E.g. a report that a piece of equipment is not working or that a building repair is required. Within administrative systems it is also normal that when users have problems using those systems, requests for help are not necessarily complaints. E.g. a student seeing incorrect information on MyCampus will ask for the information to be corrected, but that will not normally be a complaint. However, certain errors may be so significant that as soon as they are raised they should be treated as a complaint (e.g. a sum far higher than the correct amount having been deducted from a student bank account).
  • a request for information or an explanation of policy or practice.
  • a response to an invitation to provide feedback through a formal mechanism such as a questionnaire (e.g. annual monitoring, or a formal consultation) or committee membership (e.g. Staff-Student Liaison Committee, or student representation on a School Learning & Teaching Committee). The exception would be where such feedback indicates a serious issue that needs further investigation and a response to the individual who provided the feedback.
  • an issue which is being, or has been, considered by a court or tribunal.
  • an issue raised by a member of staff concerning a service provided in connection with his or her employment (e.g. salary payment, maintenance of office equipment). This is viewed as an internal administrative matter and should be raised by contacting the relevant service area.

Issues that should be addressed under an alternative process are not complaints:

  • a challenge to a decision concerning progress, assessment or award. Such decisions may be the subject of an academic appeal;
  • a request under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act or Data Protection Act;
  • a grievance by a member of staff which is eligible for handling through the Grievance Procedure;
  • an attempt to have a complaint reconsidered where the University’s Complaints Procedure has been completed and a decision has been issued. If a complainant remains dissatisfied after consideration of the complaint under Stage 1, they may request that it is reconsidered at Stage 2. When Stage 2 is concluded, the complainant will be advised that the University has come to the end of the process and if they remain dissatisfied they may seek external adjudication by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman;
  • a concern regarding the behaviour of a student. Previously complaints made by students against other students were handled under the Complaints Procedure. The new Procedure does not cover such situations. Therefore allegations regarding the behaviour of a student should be brought to the attention of the Head of School of the student in question, for consideration of whether the matter should be referred to a Senate Assessor under the Code of Student Conduct. The Code of Practice on Unacceptable Behaviour provides a helpful framework for considering the allegation made.

A complaint? How can I tell?

Our previous Complaints Procedure required formal complaints to be set out on a ‘Stage 1 Complaint Form’, so there was no ambiguity about the status of the matter being raised. The new Procedure has been laid down by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and does not permit the University to have such a requirement. Consequently, complaints may be raised in writing, in person or by telephone. (However, a Complaint Form will be available and you may encourage complainants to complete the form where you think this will help clarify the issues being raised.)

Unfortunately it is not possible to give a water-tight definition of a complaint. It will often be evident from the way that the issue is presented whether it is a complaint. If in doubt, after an initial discussion of the issue, you can ask ‘would you like me to treat this as a complaint under our Complaints Procedure?’

Complaints should not be about trivial matters. However, the new Complaints Procedure talks about ‘on the spot resolution’ of a complaint. This might occur, for instance, where the actual problem is fairly minor but the complainant has not received a response to several requests for help or there has been an unreasonable delay in providing the action/help needed. On the other hand, someone may appear at your office clearly agitated about a situation. It may be enough to listen to the problem and provide an explanation of why things are the way they are. That isn’t necessarily dealing with a complaint. Such a conversation may be preliminary to someone deciding whether or not to bring a complaint.

Another test is to consider whether the person raising the issue appears to require a response. It may be that they are satisfied simply with having made a point or expressed their opinion – ‘I thought that the course content was too theoretical and there should be more focus on recent developments in the field’ or ‘I think that there should be a better way of keeping the food hot, as the last three meals I have eaten here have either been cold or have been dried out’. If the person is keen to give their contact details (where these are not already obvious), and appears to require a considered response to the issues, possibly including an apology or other remedy, that makes it more likely that it is a complaint.

If you are unsure whether something should be treated as a complaint, please contact the Senate Office. We will also monitor the complaint reports that are submitted to identify matters that do not justify being treated as ‘complaints’ and with time will build up a more comprehensive set of guidelines, based on experience. Ultimately, where Senate Office staff are not sure whether a particular issue should be treated as a complaint, the Ombudsman’s office will be asked for a view.

Receiving complaints is not in itself a cause for concern. The Ombudsman’s office is interested in the way that the University responds to complaints: the lessons learned, the improvements to processes that they lead to as well as whether the complaints are upheld or dismissed.

Some examples

1. Students reporting problems with the teaching or administration of a course.

Issues raised through staff-student liaison committees, routine questionnaires or focus groups do not come under the definition of a complaint, and students should be encouraged to use such routine feedback mechanisms as they arise. Some individuals prefer to raise issues in such ways without labelling them as a complaint.

A student who presents various issues, saying that they are not happy with the courses that they are taking may or may not be raising a complaint. He or she may be realizing that their chosen courses do not suit them, rather than alleging that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the way that the courses are being delivered. Instead of feeling that such issues need to be labelled as a complaint, there may be a legitimate stage of talking/corresponding with the student to enable him or her to identify what it is that they are unhappy with and to refer to appropriate advice and support. Staff must be mindful of the requirement to deal with a complaint within the timescales laid down by the Ombudsman but the clock does not start until we are sure that the matter is a complaint.

2a. Why isn’t wifi available in this seminar room?

Not a complaint. This is a request for an explanation or a first time request for a service.

2b. I attended a half day seminar in seminar room X. We were split into groups to undertake research and then make a presentation. This depended on the availability of wifi in the room. Wifi was not available. The lecturer did not know who to contact about this. She left the room for half an hour and came back not having found anyone to address the problem. No other rooms appeared to be available. The lecturer appeared unable to suggest alternative work for us to tackle. The entire three hour session was wasted.

A complaint. Several issues are raised that require a response, though it revolves around the basic issue of wifi being unavailable.

3a. Why was course X cancelled?

Not a complaint. An request for an explanation. No indication that the complainant was particularly impacted by the cancellation or even that they thought it was unreasonable. Such a request for information may lead to a complaint when the person has had the chance to reflect on the information provided.

3b. I registered for course X. It was due to start on Monday evening and on the Thursday I received an e-mail telling me the course was cancelled. I had by then put in place several arrangements to enable me to attend classes, including turning down a place on an alternative course which is now full. There was no warning that the class might not run.

A complaint. The person is explaining why the situation is serious for them and in what ways they believe the University has acted unreasonably. They may be seeking a specific remedy (e.g. apology, transfer to another course).

4a. I am unable to register to graduate. Can you help resolve this?

Not a complaint – a first time request for a service. While the system should enable students to register, it is normal within any administrative system that some assistance may be required, and the University’s systems offer help facilities.

4b. I am unable to register to graduate. I asked for help and the solution offered didn’t address the problem. Can you offer another possible solution?

Probably still not a complaint. The solution offered may well have included a statement along the lines of ‘If this doesn’t solve the problem, please contact us again/reactivate the query’. If so, this is probably still within the realms of working together to solve an administrative problem.

4c. I am unable to register to graduate. The fee has been deducted from my bank account but I still can’t register and the two solutions I have been offered don’t work. The deadline for registration is two days from now. I need this to be sorted out.

A complaint: the situation has become time-critical, the scenario has become more serious as money has been taken by the University but the required ‘service’ has not been provided, there is evident frustration in the statement and an explanation clearly needs to be provided as to how this scenario has developed, and a resolution achieved.

5a. I would like to take course X but I think the fees are too high.

Not a complaint: a request for an explanation of fee policy. 

5b. I took course X and do not feel that it was good value for money. There were only six teaching sessions and there were 20 other people in the class and I hardly got to speak to the tutor at all. We had one piece of work marked and I hardly got any comments on mine. The room was also far too small and there weren’t enough desks. I would like half of my fees returned because the course was not worth the money I paid.

This is a complaint. Several issues are raised that require a response. The person is explaining in detail why they feel that the amount charged was too high in relation to the experience delivered.

6a. Two of the PCs in the study area are not working

Not a complaint – a first time request for a service, i.e. for the PCs to be repaired.

6b. The last three times I have come to the study area I couldn’t get on to a working PC. The second time I came I reported the faulty PCs and was told that they would be fixed by yesterday. When I came in yesterday there were even more machines not working. I have to submit coursework next week and can’t make progress without using the software available on these machines.

A complaint. The service that was promised has not been delivered. The scenario has become more serious with the imminent coursework submission date.

7. The bank is taking a long time to open my account and so I haven’t been able to register or pay for my accommodation.

Not a complaint: it is not complaining about the service delivered by the University. It looks like a first-time request for assistance from the University until the bank makes the money available.

8. I am a member of staff and I am unhappy about the state of repair of a building on campus.

Generally issues raised by staff are unlikely to be complaints. A request for maintenance to a member of staff’s working environment (office/classroom/lecture theatre) should be treated as an internal matter, dealt with in accordance with normal protocols. The exception would be where the area was providing a ‘service’ to the member of staff beyond their normal working environment (e.g. complaints about the changing facilities in the sports hall).

9. I am a member of staff and I am unhappy with the instructions I have been given

Not a complaint. An internal matter for the line manager, which the member of staff could ultimately escalate to the Grievance Procedure.

10. My company attended a careers fair and I am dissatisfied with the position we were given and the lack of facilities available on the day.

A complaint. Complaints do not have to come from students or staff.

11. My company wants to advertise an unpaid internship and the University will not allow this. 

A request for an explanation of University policy is not a complaint. Depending on the way that this issue is presented, it might be sufficient simply to state that the University’s agreed policy is not to advertise these positions. If the company is challenging this policy and putting forward arguments against the policy then it probably needs to be treated as a complaint.

12. I am a student and I think that the waiting time to see a counsellor or a careers adviser is too long.

Again, whether this amounts to a complaint depends on whether it is simply a query about what the waiting time is/should be. If it is an expression that in their case the time was too long (irrespective of the agreed norm) then it is a complaint. The number of complaints can be reduced by having clear signposting in supporting literature to what normal waiting times are and to the factors that sometimes mean these times cannot be adhered to.

13. The exam I took yesterday was structured differently from the past papers that the lecturer had told us to look at. Also, two of the topics in the exam aren't covered in lectures until next term.

Although this is an expression of dissatisfaction, it is unlikely to be regarded as a complaint. The issues being raised relate to possible defective procedure in assessment. Addressing these issues would be considered as an informal attempt at reaching a resolution. If the student remained dissatisfied, he or she could challenge the result from the exam by lodging an academic appeal.