The Language Of Student Complaints Procedures In The UK Higher Education Sector – Developing the Data and Methodology Chapter – Lisa Pomfrett

For an enlarged version, click on the poster or download the file:

Abstracts page

Bios page

Current Issues:

Despite relatively small corpora and the lack of a staff guidance corpus for Post-92 universities, the pilot study has provided interesting outcomes.  With this in mind, and that focus groups are likely to be London-based, should the focus of the main analysis be on documents  from universities in London rather than across England as currently planned?

Should a single focus group be held with all document users in attendance or multiple interviews held with individual users?


  • Andy Buerki

    Dear Lisa,

    Well done on your poster and what a fascinating topic! I’ll first comment on the issues you’ve raised and then just add a few other thoughts that I had.

    – Should the focus of the main analysis be on documents from universities in London rather than across England as currently planned? From the point of view of generalisability of your findings (in statistical terms: sampling theory), if you only look at London-based institutions, you can only generalise with any certainty to other London-based institutions. This seems rather restricted. So I would say: by all means add other institutions in England (or even Scotland/Wales/Ireland?). If you end up with too much data, perhaps consider dropping some London-based institutions, though of course you’ll need to judge what is feasible. I note that your title has ‘UK Higher Education Sector’ in it and if you were to only look at London-based institutions (or indeed only ones based in England) this title would need to be revised as you don’t want to make the unforgivable faux-pas of mistaking London for England and mistaking England for the UK. You mention that your focus-groups will be London-based only. The poster itself does not explain how the data from focus groups are going to be used (which is fine as you cannot explain everything in a poster, but focus-group data seem at quite a distance from your other data), but ideally, of course, all your data should cover similar areas. Therefore, if you cannot do focus groups outside of London, you’d need a very strong argument for why that does not invalidate generalisations across the UK, or perhaps you could say that the focus group part is digging down to particular detail and is a self-contained sub-part that only looks at London.

    – Should a single focus group be held with all document users in attendance or multiple interviews held with individual users? It’s a bit difficult to answer this without knowing more about how focus groups (and the data you get from them) fit into your methodology. If the language used at focus groups is just treated as spoken data equivalently to your written data, I would probably also divide them into the same categories as your written data by holding separate groups.

    The other thing that came to mind is that you don’t seem to address the elephant in the room, that is the decision to make HE subject to consumer protections and more widely of course the Conservative government’s efforts to transform HE into a market. It seems to me that you won’t be able to avoid talking about this and so you might like to think about how you might approach it – looking at conceptual metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson) could be one useful tool. I was recently very shocked indeed when I was sent a copy of a letter by registry, responding to a student appeal. The passage that shocked me was the following: “I apologise for the delay in sending you the outcome of your review request. There are occasions when, due to the number of cases and other factors, we are unable to work within our usual timescales. When this happens, we try to keep students informed. We appreciate that each appeal is important to our students who are eager to know the outcome. I am aware that we have not met our usual standard of customer service and I sincerely apologise.” This passage (and the mention of the possibility to contact the Ombudsman at the end of letter) was virtually identical to a passage in a letter I received from a train company in response to a complaint I made. Those types of letters are not among the documents that you are looking at, I think, but this particular example I thought was very revealing.

    All the best with your work – it all sounds very exciting.

  • Gerard O'Grady

    Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for the poster it was clear and informative. I am going to be rude and answer your questions with questions of my own. How likely is it that complaint procedures in London universities will differ from other English ones? As you will know better than me the Office for Students regulates (or is supposed to regulate) all HE in England so presumably there should be some degree of uniformity between them. I’m not sure how to answer your focus group question as I don’t understand what you wish to achieve with them. It might be worth considering that as we are now in the Zoom age the logistics of your proposed focus groups versus something like semi-structured interviews.

  • Kate Kavanagh

    Hi Lisa, thanks for the poster! Thinking about your focus groups question, it strikes me that the document users (who I imagine to be students, teaching staff and administrative staff?) might disclose different information amongst their peers than if all the groups were mixed. So if you wanted a representation of each perspective, separate groups may be better. Then again, the between-group interactions and agreements/disagreements could be what you’re looking for to highlight conflicts/satisfactions. If you are looking for staff perspectives, it might be odd not to include any Staff Guidance documents in your corpus, as they clearly exist and inform the discourse field.

  • Amanda Potts

    Hi Lisa! Thanks for an interesting poster. I echo the sentiment of others when I say that I’m not sure that London universities would be sufficiently distinct from English universities to make them a case study of their own. In the data section, I’m not sure that going into so much detail regarding data ultimately not utilised is necessary. On the methods section, it strikes me that this is quite the pick-n-mix. It might become overwhelming to apply and combine all of these methods. It would be more convincing to me as a reader to justify one or two methods against each subRQ and to take it that way.

  • Lisa Pomfrett

    Thanks everyone for your helpful comments.

    As there as some common themes across the comments I am going to attempt to answer these together …

    In terms of whether London institutions can be seen as representations of the whole sector this is an interesting point. Regulatory frameworks across the home nations mean that London could not be considered a representation of the UK sector as each have their own framework. However, the frameworks are fairly prescriptive in their requirements which could legitimise London being seen as a representation of the English sector. A change in title is needed as pointed out by Andy.

    In terms of focus group data, I am in the early stages of developing this but the idea is that it will be used to determine if the user’s perception of the documents supports findings from the analysis of the documents – the institutional hierarchical structures, roles of users within this and the experience users have in using the documents means that findings from the document analysis could contradict the users perception of how the documents are communicating the process. This will then feed into discussions around explicit and hidden communicative purposes and the impact of internal hierarchies and the representation of power relationships.

    As suggested the new landscape placing the student in the role of consumer will be explored in this research and I have no doubt that phrases such as those Andy quoted will be present in high numbers. Inclusion of conceptual metaphor is interesting and I will look into this further – thanks for the idea !

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