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Rise in student complaints ‘highlights challenges’ facing UK universities

Out-Law News | 06 May 2022 | 9:36 am | 2 min. read

A report published by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education (OIA) into student satisfaction “highlights the significant challenges” higher education providers faced during the pandemic, and the work still involved in resolving legacy student claims about Covid-19 disruption, according to a legal expert.

Julian Sladdin of Pinsent Masons said industrial action and the Covid-19 pandemic had created an “exceptional situation” for colleges and universities over the past two years. His comments came as the OIA report (51 pages/ 244KB PDF) showed the number of student complaints referred to it in 2021 rose by 6% on the previous year, continuing a trend of annual increases since 2017.

In total, 2,763 complaints were referred to the ombudsman, the highest figure since the OIA was established in 2004. According to the report, 45% of complaints pertained to “service issues”, while almost a third (29%) were academic appeals. Overall, 37% of the complaints were due to Covid-19 and its impact on student learning experience. One in 10 complaints (9%) concerned both academic and non-academic disciplinary matters. A further 6% of complaints were about student finances, with human rights issues making up 5%.

Just 12% of complaints were found to be ‘justified’ or ‘partly justified’ by the ombudsman, though another 15% were settled by higher education providers. Nearly half (43%) of complaints were judged to be “unjustified” and 12% were withdrawn by the student involved before the OIA could reach a decision. One in five complaints (19%) received by the ombudsman were judged to be not eligible for adjudication.

Felicity Mitchell, independent adjudicator, said: “2021 was another year dominated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many students experienced disruption to their lives and to their studies, and providers worked hard to deliver learning and support whilst balancing complex considerations and risks.”

“We received and closed more complaints than ever before and continued sharing learning from complaints through our well-received outreach programme and the information and guidance we published. We hope that our work has been helpful to students and those who support and advise them, and to providers in these very challenging times,” she added.

Overall, financial awards following complaints totalled £1,304,379, including £511,875 paid in settlements. The highest individual award was £68,000 and 63 students received over £5,000 each from their higher education providers. OIA case decisions can be challenged by judicial review. During 2021, the ombudsman received a total of eight new judicial review claims, one fewer than in 2020. Seven claims were refused permission, and one was granted permission to proceed in January 2022 and is still active - the first time since 2017 that a claim has been granted permission to proceed.

Sladdin said: “Although the impact of Covid-19 was clearly mitigated in a large majority of cases by the swift adoption of online delivery by providers, the various periods of lockdown frustrated effective solutions being implemented for many courses with a heavy practical or placement focus. It is likely that the inability to put in place mitigations in these courses due to  pandemic restrictions have contributed to the recent OIA reported outcomes including the increase in settlements this year.”.    

He added: “It is positive to see that, despite the disruption, the actual proportion of cases that were settled or the subject of a recommendation have not increased significantly against previous years. This suggests that the sector has been better and more effective in managing student learning experience throughout the pandemic than is often suggested. The fact that there have been fewer complaints about academic decisions is also positive as it suggests that the sector has also been effective in mitigating the impact of the pandemic on student assessment processes and academic outcomes.”