Several formal complaints have been rejected by the University because they were submitted after the deadlineLouis Ashworth

“Upon returning home from Cambridge, I was overwhelmed with being persistently made to feel academically and personally inadequate by my former supervisor”, Alex* said, about their experiences during the Michaelmas term of their final year.

Two years after the fact, Alex felt ready to submit a formal complaint against their supervisor, secured in knowing that they could submit a complaint with fewer potential implications for their academic career. But when they submitted their complaint, it was branded ‘ineligible’ for investigation, because the incidents Alex brought forward had happened more than 28 days prior to their raising of the complaint – the time limit of the University’s Student Complaint Procedure.

The University states that students can complain under this procedure if they are “unhappy with the experience [they] have received from a University department, faculty, service or staff member”.

The Student Complaint Procedure is seperate from the University’s disciplinary procedures that cover cases of harassment, bullying, discrimination and sexual misconduct between students. The disciplinary procedures do not have a 28 day time limit.

Alex was told that their complaint fell under the Student Complaint Procedure but as they had completed their course “over two years ago”, “even the most generous assessment of the timeliness of your complaint suggests that you are significantly out of time”.

Yet, Alex’s supervisor, the subject of the complaint, still works at Cambridge and continues to supervise students. Alex suggested that their experience “was not an isolated incident” as several other students had raised concerns which reflected the content of Alex’s complaint.

Alex told Varsity, “being unable to seek justice for myself and to prevent this from happening to other students, has left me feeling powerless, defeated and utterly disappointed”.

Cambridge’s complaints and discipline procedures have come under immense scrutiny in recent years. A Cambridge graduate is currently suing the University, alleging that university staff pressured her to drop her sexual misconduct complaint. Last September, two students spoke to Varsity about the bureaucracy involved in taking their complaints to their colleges, and their feeling that they weren’t taken seriously.

These previous complaints have tended to focus on the experience of undergraduate students. The testimonies from two students who spoke to Varsity, Alex and Taylor*, both former postgraduate students, raises additional issues due to the professional, one-on-one relationship that is expected between postgraduate students and their supervisors.

Postgraduate students are often particularly conscious of their academic relationships and potential academic careers. A consequence of this is that postgraduate students encounter the difficult question about whether to raise concerns during their time at Cambridge or to wait until graduation. The 28-day timeframe can thus pose an impossible barrier for students making the decision to complain.

Data seen by Varsity shows that since the academic year 2014-5, several formal complaints have been rejected because they were submitted after a 28-day deadline.

“being unable to seek justice has left me feeling powerless, defeated and utterly disappointed”

For the academic year 2014/15, 2 of the 8 submitted cases were rejected as being ‘out of time’. For the year 2015/16, this figure stands at 1 of 7 cases. In 2016/17, this figure was again 2 of 8 cases.

Prior to October 2017, the deadline for the submission of a complaint was ‘within three months of the matter arising’.

Revisions to the Student Complaints Procedure in October 2017 mean that complaints stipulate that ‘complaints should be made within 28 days of the matter arising, or within 28 days of the conclusion of Local Resolution’.

The revised complaints procedure also means that, since October 2017, the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals [OSCCA], the office responsible for student complaints, no longer records why individual cases are deemed ineligible. Therefore, it is no longer possible to identify how many cases are marked as ‘ineligible’ due to submission after the 28 day timeframe.

Cambridge follows many other UK universities, including Durham, City University London and UCL, which also have a 28 day limit on complaints.

A ‘Local Resolution’ is defined as efforts to speak or write to the staff member responsible for the service, action or behaviour being complained about, if this is appropriate. Where it is appropriate, you are expected to attempt Local Resolution as soon as the matter occurs and in any case within 28 days of the matter occurring’.

When completing the complaint form, students are told that ‘complaints made after these deadlines will be considered late’.

OSCCA explained that the reason for the deadline is because “the 28-day timeframe is in line with best practice from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator”.

It is possible for students to provide evidence to explain why their complaints were submitted after the 28 day requirement, “if good evidenced reasons are provided, complaints received outside the 28 day timeframe are accepted and investigated“.

Taylor*, another postgraduate student whose complaint and subsequent appeal were both rejected because of the 28-day timeframe, spoke to Varsity about their experiences of the complaint procedure.

To ensure the anonymity of the complainants, Varsity is not able to report the content of their complaints.

Both students said that the incidents which were included in their complaint negatively impacted the rest of their course.

Alex raised their complaint two years after graduating, Taylor raised concerns in the August after events in the former Michaelmas term.

Both students were told that their submitted complaints were ineligible as OSCCA had decided that their complaints were ‘out of time’.

Alex added that “feelings of inadequacy meant that I did not try to raise this issue any further due to the low self-esteem which began during my time in Cambridge. It took me two years to understand how the poor experience I had during my studies at the University of Cambridge has affected me”

Taylor did not complain until several months after the initial issue arose for several reasons. They explained that the events had already “disrupted academic work” too much to find time to submit a complaint, whilst also feeling that they had “no energy for [the] draining complaints procedure”.

OSCCA told Varsity that “evidence accepted for lateness is usually required to be from an independent source – depending on the circumstances that may be a letter from a medical professional or some other form of factual evidence".

Taylor was given one week to provide additional evidence after the initial complaint was rejected. They said that the initial rejection was disappointing as they “double-checked every event” included in the complaint to ensure that all important information was included.

Taylor found the complaints procedure “extremely emotionally draining” due to having to successively recall the experiences which underpinned the complaint.

The additional information which Taylor provided in their appeal included correspondence with the university advisory bodies, letters from their counsellor, correspondence with their department which detail academic submission extension requests and doctors letters. Despite submitting the additional documentation, their appeal was still rejected.

Alex felt that having to provide evidence from a medical professional to explain the lateness of a complaint was intrusive. Alex said to Varsity, “being asked to provide a proof in order to ‘validate’ how this experience has impacted my mental and emotional well-being after graduating felt a bit insensitive.”

Taylor found the process of providing additional information “time-consuming”, especially as they were uncertain about whether their appeal would be successful.


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After providing this subsequent evidence to explain late submission, both Alex and Taylor’s appeals were still rejected.

As with all complaints which are rejected by OSCCA, Alex and Taylor now have the opportunity to appeal to The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education [OIA]. The OIA is an independent body set up to deal with student complaints.

In response to Alex and Taylor’s concerns, a University spokesperson told Varsity that the Student Complaints Procedure was revised in 2017 “to ensure that it was clear and transparent for students”.

The spokesperson continued to explain that ” the University understands that there are a number of reasons why students are not able to raise complaints within 28 days. Where there is a valid reason for a delay, a complaint will still be investigated”.

In recognition that some students may be concerned about the consequences of raising a formal complaint, this year the University has begun a 6-month pilot of an anonymous reporting programme for postgraduate students.

In an email circulated to postgraduate students at Wolfson College, the pilot programme is described as a way to “raise concerns – anonymously – about situations or conduct” which students “may find troubling”.

The new programme claims to respond to recognition that postgraduate students may encounter “additional barriers” to reporting due to the need for close relationships with specific members of staff.

This programme will allow postgraduate students to provide feedback to College Tutors who will pass information to OSCCA, which will then communicate with the Department.

However, the new system will not have a disciplinary function. A University spokesperson told Varsity that "because of the anonymity of the students it will not be able to initiate a formal investigation".

*names have been changed to protect anonymity

*Updated 4 October 1.45pm: This article was updated to clarify that the 28 day limit only applies to the Student Complaints Procedure. This procedure covers complaints where students are “unhappy with the experience [they] have received from a University department, faculty, service or staff member”.

There is no time limit for undergraduate or graduate students making University complaints against fellow students.

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