Record number of complaints from students to ombudsman last year

The Office for the Independent Adjudicator highlighted a steadily growing number of complaints centred on sexual harassment cases

The students ombudsman 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.

The number of cases referred to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) last year is 76% higher than in 2010.

The ombudsman closed 2,185 cases last year and ruled on the side of the student in 23% of incidences – in those cases, the OIA recommended students receive financial remedies totalling more than £745,000. The number of cases upheld by the OIA last year is 3% higher than in 2018.

The highest single amount a university was recommended to pay a student by the OIA was for just over £53,000.

Half of all complaints referred to the OIA were settled in favour of universities.

Coronavirus could lead to more complaints for the OIA next year

OIA chief executive Ben Elger said the organisation’s work could become “more important than ever as the sector navigates the uncharted waters of the coronavirus pandemic”.

The National Union of Students (NUS) has also warned that the sector’s response to the coronavirus crisis had left many students feeling concerned or disgruntled. The union is campaigning for a sector-wide no-detriment position for all students this year.

NUS Vice President (Higher Education) Claire Sosienski Smith has responded to the OIA’s report:

“We know that next year, the number of complaints as outlined in the report might look quite different: NUS’ Coronavirus and Students Survey of 10,000 students showed that 74% of students are worried about the impact of the pandemic on their final qualifications and 20% of students who had been offered online learning did not agree that they were able to access it adequately.

“A lot of providers have been leading the way by offering ‘no detriment’ policies, to ensure that their students’ attainment is not unfairly captured by end of year exams this year. We believe a policy of no-detriment should be the way forward for the sector as a whole.

“Students need a safety net, and urgently. The OIA is a fantastic service to make students more powerful, but it is set up for individuals or for small groups of students on courses. The pandemic has impacted every single student in the UK, and we need a national-level, government solution to this problem: that can only be the ability to redo the year at no extra cost, giving students the chance to make up for the education they are missing out on, or have their debt and fee payments written off or reimbursed.”

Many universities, including 23 of the 24 Russell Group, have introduced the no-detriment policy.

In a letter to students, the University of Bristol described its no-detriment policy: “The effect of marks from these assessments [from March 27 2020] will be carefully considered at the end of your programme. If they improve your final degree mark, they will be included. If not, they will be disregarded. This means that your final degree classification will not be adversely affected by your results this summer.

“As part of the ‘safety net’ if your overall year average is not a pass, you will be able to retake your summer assessment in the second assessment period.”

Universities UK (UUK) has neither embraced nor disregarded the no-detriment policy.

In a statement released on April 14, UUK president Julia Buckingham said universities would devise solutions based on the “principle of fairness”, but stressed that the Office for Students and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education had each stressed “that while ‘no detriment’ and ‘safety net’ approaches may be appropriate in some instances, the operationalisation of these cannot be at the expense of academic standards”.

Complaints this year mostly related to academic issues

While the number of cases referred to the ombudsman was the highest ever, the nature of the complaints was similar to those in previous years.

Around half (48%) of complaints closed by the ombudsman related to academic appeals.

Nearly three in 10 complaints (29%) related to service issues – such as facilities, course content differing to what was advertised in the prospectus, teaching hours or research supervision.

Financial issues accounted for 5% of the complaints closed, while fitness to practice grievances accounted for 2%.

Academic disciplinary matters, equality and human rights issues, and welfare complaints each accounted for 4% of complaints respectively. Non-academic disciplinary matters – such as breaking rules in student halls of residence – accounted for 3% of complaints referred to the OIA.

As universities shut because of coronavirus, the Office for the Independent Adjudicator warned complaints might spike if providers cannot maintain distance provision adequately.

The highest number of complaints grouped according to subject area came from business and administrative studies.

International students continue to be over-represented in the complaints received by the OIA – non-EU students account for 14% of the student body and 21% of complaints, while EU students account for 5% of the student body and 8% of complaints.

Postgraduate (PG) and PhD students are also over-represented in the OIA’s figures, accounting for a quarter of the student body but 42% of complaints.

The adjudicators reported that 37% of PG and PhD complaints came from non-EU students who were paying higher fees and likely incurring higher travel costs, which might lead them to “feeling under greater pressure to ‘succeed’ on their course”.

The coronavirus situation is having a profound impact on the higher education sector but we hope the insights from our work shared in our Report will still be useful even in these difficult times
– Felicity Mitchell, independent adjudicator

A number of petitions have been started this year asking universities for tuition fee refunds following the impact of widespread industrial action in the sector. This ill-feeling might result in more complaints for 2020 (credit via Flickr Magnus Hagdorn)

Sexual harassment

The OIA report said cases involving sexual harassment or sexual misconduct have risen gradually over the last three years, which it suggested could be because students have greater confidence to report these experiences to university staff.

Although these cases amount to just 1.5% of complaints closed in 2019, that equates to around 36 incidences where students felt universities did not handle their concerns correctly. The OIA upheld 45% of the cases about sexual harassment and misconduct, which is significantly higher than the 23% benchmarked average.

The OIA offered examples of sexual harassment cases it had received. In one example, a student who complained to their university they had been sexually assaulted was given no information about the outcome of their alleged attacker’s disciplinary case. The complainant had concerns about meeting the alleged attacker again on campus; the OIA concluded the higher education provider (HEP) had not sufficiently communicated with the complainant and was told to pay an undisclosed amount in compensation.

Many of the complaints related to sexual misconduct centred on how a university communicated with a student during the disciplinary case.

“Providers are not always following fair processes or giving clear reasons for decisions involving accused students. This is especially important around decisions to suspend or entirely remove students from their course of study,” the report said, adding that universities often find it hard to reconcile the rights of the respective parties.

“A reporting student should be given a clear outcome to their complaint, and a remedy for any impact the accused person’s behaviour has had on them, even where the reporting student can’t be given full information about another person’s disciplinary case.

“We recognise that it can be difficult to balance this with the data protection rights of other individuals and we welcome the recommendation from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the sector should work together with the Information Commissioner’s Office to improve clarity in this area,” the report continued.

Read more: HE regulator calls for robust procedures over reports of sexual misconduct and harassment

Disabled students

The report from the adjudicator also highlighted cases referred to them by disabled students, who are statistically over-represented in the complaints received. The OIA concluded that “providers generally have a range of sensible policies and procedures in place” for disabled students but warned that complaints arise “commonly a result of providers not successfully adapting provisions or processes” to meet the needs of an individual disabled student.

“There is still work to do to create more fully inclusive learning environments,” it added.

Felicity Mitchell, independent adjudicator said: “In 2019 we saw another substantial rise in complaints coming to us. Despite this, we have maintained strong performance against our key performance indicators for the timeliness of our case-handling process.

“We have continued to develop our work to share learning from complaints, benefiting both higher education providers and students. The coronavirus situation is having a profound impact on the higher education sector but we hope the insights from our work shared in our Report will still be useful even in these difficult times.”

Related news: Lord Blunkett: Universities not a level playing field for disabled students


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