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Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) Annual Report 2021

The report includes information about the number and outcomes of complaints the OIA received and closed, trends in complaints, examples of complaints students, shared learning from complaints, how the OIA works with others in the higher education sector and details of developments in the organisation over the year. We share the 'at-a-glance' headlines and the implications for governance.

The full report can be found here.

At-a-glance:

  • 2,763 new complaints were received in 2021, 6% more than in 2020 and once again its highest ever number. In addition, the OIA received one complaint from a large group of students (p5).
  • Complaints relating to issues arising from the Covid 19 pandemic accounted for 37% of the total. These included complaints relating to the earlier stages of the pandemic as well as to students’ more recent experiences (p7).
  • In total, 3% of cases were justified, 9% partly justified, and 15% settled in favour of the student - slightly higher than in recent years, and the highest ever proportion of cases settled (p11).
  • The OIA made recommendations for financial remedies totalling £792,504. In addition, students received a total of £511,875 through settlement agreements. The total financial compensation in 2021 was £1,304,379, significantly higher than in previous years, partly due to difficulty in finding a practical remedy in some cases as a result of the impact of the pandemic (p27).
  • The highest single amount of financial compensation was just over £68,000, and 63 students received amounts of over £5,000 (p27).
  • 45% of cases related to service issues, 29% were academic appeals and 6% were financial. 5% of complaints each related to disciplinary matters and equality law (p8).
  • The proportion of complaints relating to academic appeals fell for the second year running, possibly due to the continuation of “no detriment” or safety net policies in some institutions (p8).
  • Complaints by study area show business and management and subjects allied to medicine, design and creative and performing arts, and law received the highest number of complaints (p9).
  • A consistent feature of OIA complaints is the very significant over-representation of PhD and other postgraduate students. In 2021, 45% of complaints came from these students (PhD and other postgraduate students make up 27% of the overall student population in England and Wales) (p11).
  • 53% of white students’ complaints were about service issues, and 24% were about academic appeals. For black students and Asian students, complaints about service issues made up 32%, and academic appeals were at 38% and 39% respectively. It is possible that there may be a link between the higher proportion of complaints about academic appeals from black students and Asian students, and the degree awarding gap (p30).
  • Cases that were ruled to be justified or partly justified included: a group of students on a new practical-based arts MA who complained about issues with the programme; a student with a serious injury whose degree was upped from a 2:2 to a 2:1 because the university had failed to provide information about the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA); a group of students on a healthcare-related postgraduate research course who complained about a number of issues including problems with laboratory work and feedback, frequent timetable changes, and the move from lab-based projects to desk-based projects during the pandemic (p15-p25).

Implications for governance:

Failure to handle complaints fairly and in a timely manner can have a negative impact on students and have financial and reputational consequences for universities. This is therefore an area of keen interest to governors.

The aim for universities, is to resolve student complaints through their own processes, to the satisfaction of all parties, as soon as possible. Institutions have come some way in recent years to make their complaints procedures more accessible, clear and as simple as possible.

A solution need not always be financial. The OIA report provides some useful examples (p26) of possible practical remedies available to universities. These range from apologising to students, sincerely; writing a letter of academic reference referring to a particular module a student had studied, for them to use when applying for professional roles; and re-registering a student and giving them an extension to the usual maximum period of registration to complete their studies.

It may be timely for governors to cast an eye over complaints data to see if internal procedures are working within reasonable time frames and whether settlements are being reached.

The OIA report shows that the number of complaints to the body has increased again, by 6 per cent, on top of last year’s increase of 10 per cent.

As the two reports cover the main period of the pandemic, it might be expected that complaints would rise; those relating to issues arising from the impact of Covid 19 accounted for 37 per cent of the caseload. Media coverage of the report has homed in on this and made a link between student dissatisfaction and remote provision and concerns raised by ministers that universities are still not providing enough in-person teaching.

Governors will be interested to note the trends outlined in the OIA report, such as a chart (p9) of complaints by study area, and consider whether the sector-wide picture is similar to internal data and if certain subjects are generating more complaints, why that might be.

The substantial over-representation of postgraduate students in OIA cases is a continuing trend. Previous reports have discussed the likely reasons for this, including the often substantial personal and financial investment and considerations for some international students such as visas or sponsorship arrangements, leading to a possible greater sense of pressure to “succeed” in their studies. Issues with the supervisory relationship can also give rise to complaints. It could be that these concerns warrant further attention within universities.

There is also a disproportionate representation of black and Asian students in academic appeals. The report suggests a possible link between this and the degree awarding gap, which universities are currently trying to reduce through a plethora of activities.

A number of the successful cases outlined in the report involve students with disabilities or mental health problems and concerns over the level of support provided to these students, particularly during the pandemic.

The OIA makes the point that while it has seen examples of good support from providers, there were cases where providers could have done more to support the student effectively: “It will be important that providers continue to focus on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their students,” it said.

When monitoring internal processes and the outcomes of complaints, governors may also find useful the OIA’s details of cases where it ruled against students and where remedies and financial compensations offered by universities were regarded by the adjudicator as sufficient. For instance, in one case a Psychology with Criminology student only realised when they booked their graduation tickets that the degree they had completed was a BA, not a BSc, despite it being listed on UCAS and in the course handbook as such. The university accepted that its pre-admission information, which described the course as BSc/BA, could have been clearer and offered the student £1,000. The student rejected the offer and went to the OIA. However, the adjudicator felt the provider’s offer of compensation was a reasonable one.

This annual report from OIA receives a great deal of attention in the media and from policymakers and the public each year, so it will be worth governors’ time to consider its implications for their own institutions.

Access the report

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