Student ombudsman received 500 Covid complaints in a year

New report gives insight into nature of Covid-related complaints escalated to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education

The student ombudsman – the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) – has published new case studies of student Covid-related complaints, as the total number of grievances lodged reaches 500.

In the collection of nine summaries submitted during the 2019-20 academic year were examples of upheld or partially upheld complaints against higher education providers.

In 2020 the OIA received 2,604 complaints, of which around 500 related to the impact of coronavirus. The number of complaints escalated to the ombudsman has risen steadily since 2016 – and the annual figure for 2019-20 could increase further as more students complete internal university complaints procedures. Students can refer unresolved complaints to the ombudsman within 12 months.

A final-year medical student, who was also an international student, complained to their university that they had no chance to gain practical skills after it cancelled placements. Like other medical schools forced to abandon clinical placements, the provider arranged for competent students to graduate early.

The OIA upheld the complaint because the university had not offered the student “additional online learning opportunities”. The student did not automatically qualify for one of the paid interim foundation year posts with the NHS, designed for graduating medical students requiring further practical experience, which was also deemed unfair by the OIA. The ombudsman recommended the provider repay the student £5,000.

The student had also paid higher fees for the clinical year of study – but the university was unable to explain why, as funds for placements come from Health Education England (HEE), not tuition fees. This “contributed” to the OIA’s conclusion that the university “fell well short of what [the student] reasonably expected”.

The OIA also criticised a university’s handling of a complaint that related to missed lab-based practical experience. The university arranged for students to undertake an alternative research project, which deemed unacceptable because the course had promised students would gain “techniques [and] the experience of working as a lab-based researcher”.

“Some students might have been able to benefit from the opportunity to do the practical lab work at a later date, but that was not a practical or affordable option for this student. Although the student had achieved the qualification, it was not as valuable to them as they reasonably expected,” the OIA concluded, recommending the provider pay the student £1,500.

The new report includes examples of cases settled privately between the university and the student during the OIA investigation. An unnamed university gave an international one-year master’s student, who could not return to study practical elements of a course at a later date, a 33% reduction in tuition fees.

Felicity Mitchell, independent adjudicator said: “The case summaries reflect the hugely challenging and complex situations that students and providers have faced as a result of the pandemic. Where possible we try to reach a settlement and we are pleased that in many cases providers and students have been very open to this.

“The summaries illustrate our approach to deciding what is fair and reasonable in these kinds of situations. We hope they will be helpful to providers and students.”

Read more: Sheffield Hallam increases support for this year’s graduates

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