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Closing the complaints gap in higher education

Following the second report from Which? on students’ experiences of higher education, Louisa Darian, Policy Adviser at Which? talks about students as consumers alongside the complaints at higher education institutions and explores the ways in which the system could improve.
This article is more than 9 years old

Louisa Darian was Deputy Director at Wonkhe, and is now an advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Last week we at Which? published our second report on students’ experiences of higher education – “A degree of value”. This brings together over two years worth of work during my time at Which?, and contains some challenging findings for the sector.

One-third of undergraduates think that their degree is poor value, with many experiencing significant and unfair changes to courses. Undergraduates are also dissatisfied with their academic experience and half of graduates say that the support that they received to enter work was also poor value.

At times Which? has received a frosty reception from parts of the sector, who have questioned what Which? can add in a market where students are not consumers and where choosing a degree is far more complex than picking a washing machine. Tackling issues in public sector markets is not new for Which? and I’ve been encouraged by the response that the report has received. While some have questioned how the findings tally with high National Student Survey scores, most recognise that these issues cannot be ignored.

Our report has also enabled us to set out in more detail some of the benefits of applying a consumer lens to a public sector market. Students have a big role to play but by applying consumer principles we can ensure that the market is working in the best interests of all its users.

One area where lessons can be applied effectively is in relation to complaints. These provide students with access to redress where they experience a problem and can also signal to providers and regulators where there is need for improvement. This is particularly important in higher education where there is high overall demand and opportunities to switch are more limited, which means that there is less incentive for providers to respond to students.

Worryingly, our research revealed that complaint systems aren’t currently working effectively for students or the sector, as there is a significant gap between the number of problems experienced and complaints received:

  • 16% of students reported experiencing a problem in the academic year 2013/14 and yet only half complained.
  • Of those who did complain, six in ten (58%) were dissatisfied with the way it was handled and half (48%) felt it was ignored.​ Only 21% said they felt like their complaint was resolved at the earliest opportunity.
  • Despite high dissatisfaction when making a complaint to a provider, only a small proportion escalate their complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). Many do not currently have access where they are studying at an alternative provider.

Following the inclusion of an amendment to the Consumer Right Bills last week, this last issue of access will soon be dealt with. As of autumn 2015, all students studying at alternative providers and further education colleges will have equal access to the OIA. This is a considerable achievement and goes a long way to achieving a level playing field.

However, it won’t solve all the issues we identified, so we have set out a number of other recommendations for the sector to consider:

  1. Minimum standards for complaints

Minimum standards for complaints, including clear timescales within which complaints should be resolved, would help increase students’ confidence in the process and would encourage more to come forward. In energy and financial services markets users are able to escalate their complaint to the ombudsmen after eight weeks, but this doesn’t apply in higher education. The OIA is currently developing good practice for complaints to providers. This should challenge the sector, and compliance should be overseen by the regulator.

  1. Clear information on rights and responsibilities

Accessible terms setting out students’ rights and responsibilities, including the right to escalate complaints, should be made available to students before they start on the course and ideally in a standard format. This would also help raise awareness of the OIA, as well as the QAA’s Cause for Concern Scheme. Our research shows that the OIA and QAA both suffer from low awareness compared to other regulators with half or fewer of the public being aware compared to 93 per cent who are aware of Ofsted.

  1. Using complaints data to inform choice and inspection activity

The Key Information Set should include information on the number of complaints providers receive, and ideally satisfaction with how complaints were handled. This could help flag to prospective students which providers are not working hard enough to respond to students’ concerns, and could also be used by the regulator to spot systemic issues, as is beginning to happen in healthcare. At the moment QAA inspects institutions that have had concerns upheld against them at a previous review, and those that have experienced a material change – including a significant increase or decrease in student numbers, a merger or change in ownership – every four, rather than six, years. However, the QAA’s guidance contains no reference to the number of complaints a provider has received to inform when they carry out inspections.

  1. Super-complaints

There will always be students who don’t complain, including those who don’t know they’re experiencing poor practice, so it’s important there is a way for others to speak up on their behalf where there are issues across a sector. In private markets, super-complaints have been an effective way for consumer bodies to get regulators to address systemic market issues that are causing considerable consumer detriment. We think an equivalent should exist in higher education so designated bodies can flag systemic issues, operating across the market, to the QAA or HEFCE which they would need to consider and respond to in a set timeframe.

So while the Consumer Rights Bill marks a significant win for students and this is to be celebrated, there’s more work to be done to ensure that the benefits of effective complaint systems can be realised.

One response to “Closing the complaints gap in higher education

  1. I cannot comment strongly enough on how important this work is. Unfortunately, my personal experience is that much of the academic practice at my university was dire. When I ćomplained there was collusion and dishonesty amongst staff. Of even more concern, was the extreme bias towards the HEI shown by the OIA, which operates within a very narrow remit, that again favours the HEIs. Nothing appears to have changed since research conducted by Price and Laybourne in 2009, which highlighted a number of student complainee concerns. It seems that currently only around 4 per cent of student complaints are upheld by the OIA, which I suggest does not indicate a fair outcome in relation to consumer rights. Those complaints that are upheld receive paltry financial compensation, against the financial cost to the student. The OIA is funded by the HEIs and a number of staff are formerly from HEIs. It is not impartial. I urge you to conduct research into students experiences (as consumers) regarding the OIA. From my experience it is not fit for purpose. What is taking place needs to be exposed so more students are aware of what is taking place.

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