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Student complaints to higher education adjudicator reach record levels

Posted: 24/05/2023

When higher education students have exhausted their provider’s internal complaints process and are not satisfied with the outcome, they can submit complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). Complaints within the OIA’s jurisdiction include academic appeals, disciplinary matters, and welfare and accommodation issues.

The OIA’s annual report 2022

In 2022, the OIA received 2850 complaints, and over £1,000,000 was awarded in compensation. This is a record number of complaints and represents a 3% increase compared to the previous year, with the number of complaints rising each year since 2017.

Complaints regarding academic appeals of assessments and grades account for 38% of the total, an increase from 29% in 2021. However, service issue complaints (covering teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities) fell from 45% in 2021 to 38% in 2022. The number of complaints in other categories remained relatively small.

The OIA found 25% of the complaints to be justified, partly justified, or settled in favour of the student. The greatest number of complaints were made by those studying business and management, and subjects related to medicine. Just under a quarter of the complaints made in 2022 were regarding the pandemic, a reduction in comparison to 2021.  

Factors that have influenced the figures include the cost-of-living crisis, industrial action and accommodation issues. In 2022, the OIA published useful guidance about responding to the cost of living crisis. It is likely that the marking and assessment boycott will only increase the number of complaints with group litigation, outside of the OIA’s scheme, being contemplated against a number of institutions. 

Handling complaints and academic appeals

The importance of higher education providers maintaining effective internal complaints procedures is critical, and was highlighted by the OIA in its annual report, which stated: ‘Resourcing complaints handling and student support and advices services effectively, even when finances are stretched, leads to better outcomes for students… Sometimes delay can become the subject of a new complaint about the provider’s process, running alongside the student’s original complaint.’ In our experience, the OIA will partially uphold a student complaint on the basis of delay alone.

Significant delay may also result in a practical solution no longer being possible, such that the only feasible remedy outstanding is financial compensation.

In 2022, the OIA also revised the ‘Handling complaints and academic appeals’ section of its good practice framework, which is intended to support providers in developing and following fair processes.

Institutions which deal with such complaints must ensure they understand these rules and keep on top of good practice by reviewing and ensuring:

  • staff who deal with sexual misconduct cases are trained, and that training is up to date;
  • the complaints procedure is up to date, and interacts smoothly with other procedures;
  • good records of complaint investigations are kept;
  • there is a process for sharing information with the student during a complaint investigation;
  • the quality of programmes is reviewed in line with the provider’s procedures for new programmes; and
  • the processes for changing a course or curriculum are kept up to date to make sure that current students and those holding an offer are given the information they need at a time that allows them to make informed decisions about the course.

To avoid yet another increase in complaints, especially successful ones, higher education providers must ensure they follow fair and transparent internal procedures in a timely manner. Information provided to students from the beginning of their studies onwards must also be clear about what to expect during their studies, what might change over the course of their studies and why, and the options that are available to them when changes do happen.

These requirements should be ingrained in providers’ practices and procedures, not just because they represent good practice and are in accord with the OIA’s expectations, but also because institutions must meet these standards as a result of their duties under consumer legislation, and to keep on the right side of regulators (both the Competition and Markets Authority and the Office for Students).

This article was co-authored with Neve Goodbun, trainee solicitor in the employment team.

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