The report examines cases brought to the OIA in 2022, as higher education was recovering from the pandemic and cost of living pressures were beginning to emerge. Both the independent adjudicator Felicity Mitchell and the chair of the OIA, Dame Suzi Leather, are stepping down this year. The new adjudicator Helen Megarry starts in May and a new Chair will be appointed from October.
- A record 2,850 new complaints were received in 2022, 3 percent more than in 2021. Some 2,821 cases were closed by the OIA, 6 percent more than in the previous year (p5)
- A quarter of cases were justified (3 per cent), partly Justified (7 per cent) or settled in favour of the student (15 percent). This is slightly lower than in 2021 but comparable to previous years (p13)
- The overall total financial compensation in 2022 was £1,050,114. Recommendations for financial remedies totalled £382,298 and in addition, students received a total of £667,816 through settlement agreements. The highest single amount of compensation was over £48,000. 49 students received amounts of £5,000 or more (p31)
- The OIA also closed a complaint from a group of over 400 students about disruption to their arts-based courses during the pandemic which was partly justified. The students received around £640,000 in compensation. (OIA has omitted this group from the data on complaints to ‘avoid a distorting effect on trend information’) (p22)
- The proportion of complaints about academic appeals (which includes complaints about academic matters such as assessments, progression and grades) rose to 38 percent, from 29 percent in 2021 (p10)
- The proportion of complaints about service issues (teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities) fell to 38 per cent, from 45 percent in 2021 (p10)
- This rebalancing of caseloads is likely to reflect the end of the “no detriment” or safety net policies that had been in place during the pandemic and had resulted in fewer appeals, as well as the reduction through the year in the number of complaints related to Covid-19 disruption (p10)
- Complaints in other categories remained relatively small, but collectively these categories accounted for 24 per cent of case receipts. These include financial issues (6 percent), disciplinary matters (academic) (5 percent), and equality law/human rights (4 percent) (p10)
- The subject areas with the highest number of complaints were business and management, subjects allied to medicine, law and design, and creative and performing arts (p11)
- International students, especially non-EU students, continue to be over-represented in the complaints received. Non-EU students accounted for 19 percent of the student body in England and Wales but made 27 percent of the complaints made to the OIA in 2022. The overrepresentation of postgraduate students in the number of complaints was less marked than in recent years (p11, p12)
- The OIA saw some increase in complaints relating to harassment and sexual misconduct, but numbers remain small (p26)
Implications for governance:
Record numbers of complaints were made to the OIA in 2022, demonstrating the increasing appetite for students to bring challenges to what the expected to receive as part of their tuition fee vs what they believed they received.
According to the OIA, universities own complaint procedures are, on the whole, fairer, better signposted and easier to follow than they once were. Record keeping has improved and learning from complaints is captured more systematically.
In particular, support for disabled students “has come a very long way”, with legislative developments and guidance changing how providers approach support for disabled students.
However, because of a combination of the increased volume of complaints and “other challenges”, some students are finding it harder to bring complaints and some institutions are struggling to progress them effectively through internal procedures, and to support students though the process.
The need to process complaints in a timely manner is a point made each year by the OIA. In the 2022 report, it references that some students were left “very frustrated by the delays”.
Sometimes the delay becomes the subject of a new complaint, running alongside the student’s original complaint and in a number of 2022 cases, the OIA made recommendations that providers should pay compensation to students for delays in the internal processes. This is something the governing body should consider form both financial implications for the institutions, but also in terms of the wider student experience.
Speedy resolution benefits all sides and governors may want to consider whether their institution’s practices and procedures make this more or less likely. The OIA’s Good Practice Framework is a useful document against which to measure institutional approaches to resolving complaints. Governors should seek assurances that the institution’s own procedures adhere with the Good Practice framework and that it is regularly reviewed.
It may be the case that improving procedures means allocating extra resources, but the OIA suggests this would be money well spent.
“We understand how challenging it is to balance rising caseloads, increasing complexity, and pressures on staff. But resourcing complaints handling and student support and advice services effectively, even when finances are stretched, leads to better outcomes for students,” the report says.
The OIA highlights that once again in 2022, higher education continued to see a rise in the number of students experiencing significant distress and mental health difficulties, and this was reflected in the issues raised in students’ complaints.
Governors may want to note that a number of cases outlined in the report featured claims by students that support or reasonable adjustments for their mental health needs or disabilities had fallen short of what was agreed, or what was agreed was not sufficiently clear and laid out. These complaints were partially upheld. In other cases though, where reasonable resolutions had already been offered to the student by the institution, the cases were not upheld.
The OIA makes the point that settlements can be a quicker and less stressful way to resolve complaints. Examples of settlements outlined in the report include agreements to recalculate a students’ degree classification, to remove a non-disclosure clause, to allow a disabled student to step away from their studies for a period (as well as to pay the student compensation), and to rehear a case of suspected academic misconduct against a student as the original process had not been fair.
The case in the 2022 report most likely to garner headlines is one brought by a group of over 400 students about disruption to their arts-based courses during the pandemic. The complaint was partly justified and students received around £640,000 in compensation. The OIA found that the provider had not properly addressed some of the issues the students had raised about the disruption and had not provided sufficient information to show that it took reasonable steps to deliver the learning opportunities that it had promised. The OIA also said that it took the provider too long to consider the complaints.
Cases like this have prompted the OIA to create a large group complaints process, which, in itself, is perhaps a sign that more collective claims are expected in the future. (A group legal action that has been extensively covered in the media, the Student Group Claim, has its first hearing in court on May 24. It is pressing for students to receive compensation for pandemic disruption. The initial claim is against UCL and the outcome could have implications for a further 83 universities where group claims have been lodged).
Other examples in the OIA report of cases upheld or partially justified include compensation to students who were told, incorrectly, that a course was professionally accredited and a distance learning course that was criticised for being low quality.
The point has been made elsewhere that to provide effective oversight, governing bodies should receive regular reports on internal complaints and the outcomes with clear ownership from a Board Committee to receive this information in detail.This is important, not only to ensure that procedures are effective but to shed light on any issues arising in specific areas of HE business. The OIA report highlights for instance, that postgraduates are overrepresented in the number of complaints and that supervisory relationship are a common theme in complaints from PhD students. Governors will no doubt be well aware that mishandling of student complaints can draw attention from regulatory bodies and in some cases the media, raising the risk of reputational damage for an institution. Paying close attention to the points raised in the OIA’s report should help reduce that risk.
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