How to raise a concern about a university or college

Martha Longdon is OfS' Student Experience Board Member and a former President of Nottingham Trent SU

Now more than ever it is crucial for students to know what to expect from their university or college about teaching and support.

With the vast majority of learning now taking place entirely online, the pandemic has sparked a whole host of new challenges for all students. These may be particularly difficult to navigate for international and disabled students and those who have caring responsibilities or are estranged from their families.

Such difficult circumstances are all the more reason for universities and colleges to ensure that they are giving out information as soon as possible on how courses are being delivered and changes to teaching and assessment, with clear-cut advice on the implications for individual students.

The disruption caused by Covid-19 – which as a postgraduate research student, I have experienced first-hand – has urgently demonstrated the need for students to be able to access clear information on how and when to raise concerns about their experiences.

Part of the work that needs to be done is improving the awareness of the role of the Office for Students (OfS) and how it operates to make sure that students receive a good educational experience.

OfS is the independent higher education regulator for England. Over 400 universities, colleges and other higher education providers are on its register. The regulator’s goal is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

As chair of its student panel, I strongly believe that higher education cannot be effectively regulated without student input. The panel is made up of a group of students from a diverse range of backgrounds which meet to advise the OfS on how it can most effectively regulate in the interests of students.

But you don’t have to be on the panel to help ensure the regulator is looking out for students. Students’ unions and representatives are an invaluable source of insight into issues facing students as they support them during Covid-19 and beyond. They are important stakeholders in how the OfS regulates.

What can you do?

It is really important that students across the country know how and when to raise issues with the regulator. Although the OfS is unable to get directly involved in individual complaints, it can intervene if there is evidence of its requirements not being fulfilled.

This is where notifications come in. Submitting a notification is a process which allows students, staff and others to highlight concerns where universities and colleges may not be meeting regulatory requirements.

However, this process can only be effective in supporting student voices to be heard if it is open and straightforward to use. To ensure the process is accessible to students and their representatives, the OfS has published a new guide on notifications and how to submit them.

What’s in the guide?

The student guide gives practical step-by-step advice on how to submit a notification, as well as a useful glossary of key words. The publication also features examples of the kinds of issues that can be shared, such as concerns about teaching quality, a lack of academic support or access to facilities or resources, how a university or college is run and whether it lives up to its commitments on access and participation.

These also include specific issues which may have arisen during the pandemic, including a lack of support while self-isolating at university or college-owned accommodation or a reduction in teaching hours without clear intentions to make these up later on.

What next?

This guide is part of a wider student engagement strategy from the OfS, something which the student panel has been actively involved in from the beginning. We will continue to find ways to proactively engage with student unions and representatives to ensure regulation works in the student interest.

The OfS will also be holding some online discussion sessions for students and students’ unions on the notifications guide on 24 and 25 February and 1 March. If you have questions about it or want to talk through how you might use it, please come along. To sign up, email with your name, university, college or students’ union, and job role (if you’re a staff member or elected officer).

While the student panel will continue to challenge the OfS to stick to the commitments set out in the strategy, it is encouraging to see an important step in the right direction towards proactive and open communications between the regulator and the students it’s designed to protect.

I hope that the new guide will be a useful tool for students and students’ unions should they need to raise their concerns about issues at their university or college.

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