Mikhail Kudilinsky, Vice-Rector for Economic Development, talks about why complaints are not always negative in nature and how St Petersburg University approaches well-reasoned proposals for improving its environment.
Mr Kudilindky, what are the most frequent complaints relating to the University?
Mostly they relate to unfair competition between suppliers and contractors, something which can happen quite often. A company might submit a complaint to the Federal Antimonopoly Service regarding a lack of legal compliance on the part of our tender documents or infringement upon the rights of those companies that potentially could take part in the competition. Such claims are not infrequent, yet they are mostly unreasonable and therefore dismissed. It’s not something that comes to the forefront, it’s always in the background. A company may be disqualified in the competition, and they decide to take revenge on the University. Let’s consider one example. A company, which did not even participate in the competition, submitted 27 complaints to the Federal Antimonopoly Service, most of them unreasonably litigious complaints. The company’s focus was beyond the scope of the tender, and its office was located in another city. They were satisfied with the response to two complaints, while 25 complaints were rejected. During the complaints procedure, the University received letters that proposed to deal with the appeals without court hearing. What the company was driving at was obviously to overload and impede the administration as the complaints procedure is incredibly time-consuming. They probably expected us to buy them off. Yet we did not yield to such blackmail tactics and made it a public issue. They quickly lost interest, and today we have not heard from them anymore.
Our competitions and tender releases are not designed in a way to enable certain companies to make the best bid. We are far from having some preferences towards certain companies. There is no sense in blackmailing. We received a number of letters threatening to cause bodily harm (including to me and my family) as a particular company had been eliminated from the competition. By the way, it is not my responsibility to choose which company will proceed to the competition and which will not. It is within the responsibility of a special University committee. The Federal Antimonopoly Service considered the complaints in relation to those competitions and did not reveal any non-compliance with the law.
Yet another case. Someone complained to the Federal Agency for State Property Management about a vending machine that was, as they thought, illegally installed in a University’s building. Nevertheless, they attached a photo taken in another building where there was no vending machine. Therefore, no harm was done. Sometimes there is a competition between the canteen operators. Once we terminated an agreement with a company for unpaid utility bills and the company threatened to send a complaint to the Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor). They insisted that the canteens that had been opened by their competitors be closed. Yet there was no evidence of any infringement.
How often does the University receive complaints? Is it related to a certain time of year?
The University is always involved in economic development regardless of the season. In summer this is even more vigorous as we are preparing for a new academic year. Therefore, how often we receive complaints is not related to the time of the year. Obviously, there are not as many food complaints in summer as we are during the vacation. Over the year, we have a good practice in dealing with the complaints: when it comes to a food complaint, we form a special commission with the complainant as its member and initiate an inspection. It is a kind of test: if the complainant is really dissatisfied or annoyed with something and wants to have some say in what happened with them, they will join in and be involved. It says that they are sincere enough. It is not a rare occasion when someone is complaining about food control when it involves a conflict between a complainant and the canteen worker. In this case, the inspection shows that there is no evidence for complaints. Such an inspection commission consists of at least three members, including representatives from the Student Council and Trade Union, yet it may include more members in certain cases. The inspection results are published on the University’s website.
We are not afraid of complaints related to the University that are submitted to Rospotrebnadzor. If Rospotrebnadzor initiates an inspection and reveals some non-compliances, we can only benefit. Complaints are a very important way for us to identify situations that may be in breach of the law. We can thus identify trends and take action.
How does the University deal with the unreasonable complaints?
If such complaints are brought before the Federal Monopoly Service, it is not our responsibility to handle them, and unreasonable complaints will be rejected by the Service. It is far from the first time when we are involved in such cases. But when it comes to the unfair conduct by the company that lost the competition, such behaviour must be reported to the authorities. If we talk about food complaints, each of them should be investigated. The driving force behind the complaint is not as important as non-compliance itself. Any information about negative things at the University should be investigated. It can only benefit the University.
Do you have a positive experience relating to the complaints that produce a positive impact on the University?
Of course. After receiving suggestions, we regularly vary the menu in our canteens. Some canteens offer a great variety of pastry, while others ensure healthier choices. It is a result of the feedback from our students. We try to take into consideration what our students suggest. We purchase microwave ovens when there are not enough for heating food. We regularly receive requests for dispensers for drinking water and vending machines and vary the product selection.
Is there any guidance on who would be the best person to approach if you have cause for concern without misleading investigating and controlling bodies?
When making any formal complaint, contact the Virtual Reception portal. You can arrange an appointment or submit a complaint in writing. Each canteen has information about who you can contact if you have cause for concern. Each case is investigated and you will be issued a letter when the complaints procedure is ended. The main thing is to be concrete and reasonable. There is nothing wrong if you are too emotional when complaining, but you should focus on what exactly raised a cause for concern. Thus, we stand more chance of finding a solution.
The complaint itself is not a negative experience, rather part of our routine and a feedback tool. For example, by investigating complaints we can improve food services at the University. As a result, we are receiving fewer and fewer complaints, mostly at the start of the academic year or when we change a catering operator. Otherwise, we receive just a couple of them a month.