Student ombudsman tells universities to pay record compensation

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education received a record number of complaints in 2021, with more than a third relating to the impact of the pandemic

In a year marred by the lingering impact of the pandemic, the student ombudsman told universities in England and Wales to pay a record amount of compensation to disaffected students. 

Data released by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) shows that it instructed universities to pay a record £1.3 million in compensation, a 27% rise on 2020’s figure of £742,132. 

The largest single payout to a student recommended by the OIA last year totalled £68,000. Sixty-three students received more than £5,000 each.

The ombudsman received 2,763 complaints, a 6% rise from last year, setting a new OIA record. Remedial action was needed in around 300 cases, the adjudicator recommended. The OIA said the record increase in payment is in part due to the difficulty of offering other types of compensation, like extra teaching time or exam retakes, because of Covid restrictions. 

Of those received, 2,654 cases were closed by the end of the year, the OIA reported. The OIA upheld 27% of complaints – a figure slightly higher than in recent years and the highest proportion on record. In total, 3% of complaints were justified, 9% ‘partly justified’ (9%), and 15% settled in favour of the student.

Students deserve a fair deal and it is good to see this process working with compensation pay outs increasing to over £1.3 million and more complaints upheld than ever before
Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education

The OIA handled several cases relating to events in 2020 because students have 12 months to raise a complaint after completing an internal university process. Following the introduction of a new group complaints process, the OIA this year handled a case brought by multiple students, finding in favour of the complainants. The case involving a cohort of students on a practical-based arts MA was partly upheld by the OIA, which recommended the university repay 50% of fees and offer £6,250 for the distress and inconvenience. 

Other figures from the report: 

  • 37% of cases related to the pandemic, with students studying design creative and performing arts courses the most likely to complain about the pandemic-related disruption
  • The OIA recommended financial remedies totalling £792,504. Students received an additional £511,875 through settlement agreements reached with the help of the OIA.  
  • The bulk of complaints (45%) related to “service issues” such as teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities.
OIA independent adjudicator Felicity Mitchell said she has shared feedback with universities if she decided students should receive compensation.

Felicity Mitchell, the OIA independent adjudicator said: “We received and closed more complaints than ever before and continued sharing learning from complaints through our well-received outreach programme and the information and guidance we published.” 

The minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan, said: “I have been very clear that students deserve quality, transparency and value. 

“Where students believe they are not receiving the high-quality experience they were expecting, they have every right to raise a complaint with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they are not happy with the response from their university. 

“Students deserve a fair deal and it is good to see this process working with compensation payouts increasing to over £1.3 million and more complaints upheld than ever before.” 

Responding to the OIA annual report, the National Union of Students (NUS) said the record number of complaints was “no surprise”, as “students are at a breaking point”. 

“Whilst university reserves soar to unparalleled highs, we’re hearing from more and more students who are relying on both food banks and loans from Klarna,” the NUS spokesperson said. “[T]hese stats will underestimate the number of those who aren’t happy with their experience – this disapproval will have been shared by thousands more students who either don’t know about or weren’t able to access this complaints mechanism.” 

The NUS blamed “a failing marketised system” for the rise in complaints, urging the government to “urgently acknowledge that digital poverty is a major issue for marginalised students, and ensure that assistive technology and necessary adjustments are put in place”. 

Read more: Student ombudswoman announces departure from OIA

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