The higher education ombudsman has announced how it will handle group complaints from students following the mass disruption of the Covid pandemic.
The rule changes are procedural, and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) does not propose taking a different approach to interrogating or settling cases. The plans were announced and put out for consultation last November.
“Our role is to decide whether the provider has acted reasonably and whether students have been treated fairly, which is broader than whether a provider has met its legal obligations,” the new OIA rules explain. “We make a decision about whether a provider has followed what we consider to be good practice, having regard to relevant sector guidance and our own experience of handling complaints.”
The OIA last year received record numbers of complaints since it became the designated student complaints scheme in 2005. It is unclear what has driven the growth; university shortcomings, higher expectations in an era of higher fees, or a growing awareness of the adjudicator and its role.
The adjudicator notes that the pandemic has led to “unprecedented” disruption for students. It has so far received over 500 Covid-related complaints. “While such events don’t necessarily lead to large groups of students complaining to us, it’s important that we are properly prepared,” the OIA said.
The adjudicator does not launch investigations until an individual student has exhausted the internal complaints process. The new rules sweep away that requirement, permitting students to add their names to group complaints provided the university has “reached a final position on the issues of the complaint”.
The OIA will give students “not less than four weeks” to add their name to a group complaint, provided they can evidence having been affected by the issue. The OIA said its new approach to considering group complaints streamlines its operations.
To be considered, cases must be similar and at the same institution or delivery partner. The OIA “would not make that decision without discussing it with the provider”, effectively giving a university the chance to modify its response to avoid a group action. It will also discuss with students and university possible resolutions before publishing its recommendations.