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University of Highlands and Islands changes its ways after pupil wins long-running battle


By Louise Glen


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Dr Shirley Moore.
Dr Shirley Moore.

A former hospital doctor who raised concerns about the handling of her complaint by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), has had her case upheld by the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman (SPSO).

Dr Shirley Moore enrolled on a diploma in higher education (DipHE) specialising in person-centred counselling and psychotherapy but made a complaint to the SPSO after the UHI failed to take her concerns seriously.

She initially raised concerns about the way in which the course was managed, and adjustments that were needed to be made to take into account her needs as a disabled student.

Made to feel as though she was a “vexatious” complainer, Dr Moore has now, some two years later, finally received a full apology from the UHI.

After an investigation, the SPSO found that there had been lengthy delays in the handling of Dr Moore’s complaints, which required considerable prompting from her in order to be updated and eventually receive a response from the university.

Dr Moore, who was a student at the UHI, studying from her home in Perth, said: “I am pleased that the SPSO upheld my concerns about the UHI’s handling of my complaints regarding the counselling DipHE course and their failure to adhere to my personal learning support plan.

“However, I am disappointed in the length of time that this process took, having initially raised my concerns formally with the UHI in February 2018 and completed the taught part of my course in June 2019.

“It was only after a whistle-blowing disclosure to the Chair of Court, involvement from the Psychotherapy and Counselling Union, and a meeting with the director of corporate governance and the Dean of Students that the UHI actually paid any attention to my original concerns.

“I finally received an acceptable apology on August 18, 2020 for the ‘extremely poor treatment and unsatisfactory level of services and distress that you have experienced as a result of multiple failures made by us during your time as an enrolled student’.”

Dr Moore said her apology also stated that she had been identified by the college in error as a “unreasonable complainant and as vexatious”.

She continued: “The UHI eventually acknowledged that I had ‘always acted appropriately’.

“I feel saddened that as an experienced student and professional, with a genuine interest in improving the learning experience for my colleagues, and indeed all students, my concerns were dismissed, ignored or inadequately investigated when the UHI could have engaged with my cohort to improve the course and the student experience, rather than sweep the problems under the carpet and ultimately have to close the course.

“I wonder whether a less tenacious student, who was perhaps not as aware of their rights, would feel they had to drop out or put up with a poor experience.

“Indeed, we lost almost half our original cohort of students before the end of the first year.”

A spokeswoman for the UHI said: “The UHI is committed to welcoming complaints. We regret that in this instance our complaints procedure failed the complainant.

“Following SPSO intervention, we apologised to the complainant for the way that we handled their complaint and the unreasonable delays in resolving the complaint, and we also implemented the SPSO recommendations for improvement to ensure that these do not recur.

“We also reviewed the way we deliver training to our personal academic tutors, and we have shared lessons learned about our complaint handling processes at our senior committee level.

“Since the complaint, in March 2021, we have updated our complaints handling procedure in line with the SPSO model complaints procedure to ensure our complaints handling procedure is in line with best practice and legislative requirements.”

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