Universities have been told today by the higher education ombudsman that “a blanket refusal to consider tuition fee refunds” next year is “not reasonable”, as the adjudicator laid out its approach to handling student complaints ahead of what is expected to be a tumultuous year for the sector.
In new guidance published today, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) emphasised how it will assess complaints during the 2020/21 academic year as universities prepare to roll out blended learning to millions of learners.
There will be few surprises for universities as they were collectively warned by the ombudsman of the conduct and behaviour that would fall short of its standards, which stress the importance of communication and empathy.
Some students will likely be severely affected by the forthcoming year, the ombuds body warned. Although providers might not always be able “to deliver learning and other services that are consistent with students’ reasonable expectations”, all reasonable efforts should be made “to deliver what was promised”, the OIAHE said.
“A blanket refusal to consider tuition fee refunds in any circumstances is not reasonable. There may be groups of students that are particularly affected, and providers should take steps to identify those groups and address their issues. But they also need to consider concerns raised by students about their individual circumstances.”
Although the OIAHE has recommended universities consider offering aggrieved students refunds, it is not suggesting institutions devise institution-wide refund policies. It recommended universities identify and support students who do not have access to a good internet connection, IT equipment, or a quiet study space, and those who were expecting to study abroad or in industry.
What students can reasonably expect, and what providers can reasonably be expected to deliver, is likely to change and evolve as circumstances change and evolve, especially if restrictions are tightened again. But providers should be planning to deliver what was promised – or something at least broadly equivalent to it – and to ensure that learning outcomes can be met
Higher education providers (HEPs) were told that “a rigid adherence to regulations and processes is unlikely to be fair” on students and that “empathy and flexibility” would be key to handling student grievances. Deferral policies, for example, were singled out by the report as an area where students could fall foul of administrative inflexibility.
“Students who feel they have been not been told what to expect, or who have had changes imposed on them without explanation or discussion, are far more likely to be unhappy,” the note advised. “Students need to have as much information as possible about what the year will look like, including what might happen if restrictions are tightened again, so that they can make informed choices.”
HEPs must remain abreast of the guidance issued by the bodies that regulate and oversee the sector, which include the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Office for Students (OfS) and Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Although the OIAHE does not make “legally binding decisions about individuals’ rights”, adjudicators will consider how much effort universities made to fulfil their contractual and legal obligations to students considering what the CMA, OfS and QAA advise.
“What students can reasonably expect, and what providers can reasonably be expected to deliver, is likely to change and evolve as circumstances change and evolve, especially if restrictions are tightened again. But providers should be planning to deliver what was promised – or something at least broadly equivalent to it – and to ensure that learning outcomes can be met,” the note explained.
“Many courses require face-to-face interaction that makes social distancing very difficult to maintain. We will look at relevant guidance from Professional Statutory and Regulatory Bodies as well as QAA and OfS and others when we are deciding what is reasonable. We will also consider examples of good practice in other providers.”
The adjudicator concluded in May 2019, following widespread industrial action, that some students who had lost teaching time were justified in seeking partial tuition fee refunds from their universities. In January 2020 the University of Sussex unveiled a compensation scheme for students affected by staff strike action. The ex gratia scheme offered students the chance to claim up to £100 if they had experienced “significant distress” because of the industrial dispute.
The president of Universities UK (UUK), Prof Julia Buckingham, told MPs in May 2020 that the impact of a sector-wide student tuition fee refund would be “horrendous”.
The OIAHE revealed in April that it had received more than 2,300 complaints in 2019 from students in higher education, setting a new record for the number of grievances referred to the adjudicator in one year.