University ombudsman outlines plans for group complaints from students

The Office for the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education is consulting on plans to allow group complaints from students

The higher education ombudsman for England and Wales has today launched a consultation on its plans to allow groups of students to submit complaints about a university.

The Office for the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) outlined its proposed plan to handle “large group complaints” from students whose grievances have “a high degree of commonality”, in anticipation of increased student dissatisfaction with teaching during the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its attending “unprecedented disruption” has the “potential to lead to large numbers of complaints” that the OIA is currently ill-equipped to handle, a statement from the ombudsman explained. Complaints referred to the OIA rose by around 20% every year, and this trend has continued in 2020.

In the event it receives a large number of complaints from students at one university, the OIA would consider the criticisms “collectively rather than focusing on individual aspects”.

“We envisage that the Large Group Complaints process would be best suited to situations where there is a high degree of commonality between the complaints in a group, or where within a large group, complaints can be divided into a small number of sub-groups if students have been affected by the issue in slightly different ways,” an OIA statement explained.

This process would, however, grant individuals less opportunity to “express their unique concerns and to challenge our decisions”, the ombudsman conceded.

Being able to make complaints collectively will stand to empower students in the face of this Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, National Union of Students

Crucially, however, the proposed plans mean the OIA “may accept some complaints as part of the group that have not completed the provider’s internal processes”. The change could broaden the scope of a future OIA enquiry and allow the ombudsman to proactively handle cases of poor provision where a particular failure has impacted a large number of learners.

Students would also be offered a “collective opportunity” to provide their views and experiences to the OIA via an online discussion session with their peers. The OIA may, however, restrict the timeframe for group complaints in order to review them collectively and “in a timely way”.

The OIA encouraged universities to approach them if unable to settle a large number of complaints about one issue internally.

Felicity Mitchell, Independent Adjudicator said: “In these turbulent times it is important that we do everything we can to provide an effective service for all students who need us. If a very large group of students were to complain to us, our proposed new process would help us to handle their complaints fairly and efficiently, minimising the work involved for the students and the provider. This would in turn reduce the impact of a Large Group Complaint on our ability to review complaints from other students.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, welcomed the OIA consultation. “Students exist in a marketised system that disempowers us at every stage: whether by prioritising our fee and rent income over safety, or by forcing us to only ever seek individual compensation for our collective misfortune,” she said.

“Being able to make complaints collectively will stand to empower students in the face of this.”

The House of Commons petitions committee has lobbied the government to make it easier for students to pursue tuition fee refunds, but the Department for Education has repeatedly rejected these calls, arguing that new OIA complaints processes would be developed in time to handle these complaints in the 2020/21 academic year.

Read more: Refusal to consider tuition fee refunds next year ‘not reasonable’ – OIA

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