Handling student correspondence

  • During the process of considering a complaint, appeal or other similar procedure it is normally necessary to engage with a student via letter or email. The way in which this correspondence is written can have a significant impact on whether or not the student feels satisfied with the final outcome, especially where the final outcome is not the one they were seeking.

    This brief note is offered by way of assistance to all staff who need to draft such correspondence. It is especially useful when writing with a negative response but the general advice applies to positive responses too. The hoped for outcome from the University’s perspective is that, whether or not a student feels they have received the response they were seeking, each student feels that their case has been understood, considered in sufficient depth, and that they understand the reasoning for the response they have received.

    When drafting any letter or email, it is therefore important to consider the following elements of a good reply.

    A. Understanding
    The recipient of your message will want to be assured that you have understood their situation and the request they are making. It is therefore important that you include details in your letter which demonstrate you have engaged with the situation you are considering. You might like to briefly summarise the position "as you understand it" as one way of achieving this.

    B. Empathy
    Alongside understanding, the recipient will want to be assured that you have some level of empathy for their situation. Even if you are not able to provide the response being sought, and even if you feel that the situation described is not as severe as being portrayed, it is important to see the position from the student’s point of view and use that perspective to inform your response.

    C. Explanation
    It is important to explain your decision. This might include referring to appropriate regulations but it is not normally sufficient simply to say something is "outside the regulations" and expect that to be seen as a satisfactory response. Even if your response is ultimately a regulatory one, try to explain the purpose of the regulation too and why it cannot be waived.

    D. Content
    You must ensure you provide sufficient content in your response to convey the three points above. It is unlikely that a short response will be able to convey understanding, empathy, and a sufficient explanation of your decision. A suggested structure for the content is given in points 1 to 5 below.

    E. Timeliness
    Although you need to take sufficient time to provide a considered response, covering the four points above, timeliness is an important and vital part of the definition of a good response. If you know your response is going to take some time, then it is best to provide the student with a realistic date by which you intend to reply. You must then achieve that deadline and, if you can’t, you must let the student know why and provide a revised deadline.

    F. Language
    Finally, ensure you avoid overtly negative phrases and words in your response. Words such as ‘rejection’, ‘dismiss’, ‘fail’ and so on can be replaced with phrases which are less likely to cause a negative response such as ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘unable to accept’. Softer phrases will convey the same message but are less likely to cause a frustrated reply; for example, "I am rejecting your request as you failed to meet the relevant deadline" can be better phrased as "unfortunately your request was not submitted by the relevant deadline and so must be considered late".

    Whilst each message needs to be considered individually, you may like to consider the following structure for your response:

    1. Acknowledge the request and provide the framework within which you are replying, e.g. as part of the complaints process, and refer to any relevant regulations or procedures you have followed in preparing your response. Provide a link to the relevant regulations if you can.
    2. Briefly state what the outcome of your consideration is.
    3. Outline the student’s situation as you understand it and the actions you have taken during your investigation and consideration. Do not make any judgements at this stage: be brief and factual.
    4. Outline the factors you have taken into account in reaching your decision, provide your decision, and explain why it is your decision.
    5. Summarise any further actions the student can now take, e.g. details of any appeal or review process. It is important to include any dates by which a follow-up action must be taken. You should also provide this information as a date, i.e. do not describe a deadline as e.g. "within three months" but give the actual date (and time if relevant).