Providers and their regulator aren’t learning from student complaints

Jim Dickinson reviews the higher education ombud's annual report and finds a system that is increasingly ignoring student concerns

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Drawing inferences, as the wider media like to do, from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s annual casework stats is a dangerous game.

A record 2,850 complaints from students at providers in England and Wales, for example, might sound terrible – but the sector might also relax a little given the record number of students being enrolled in those providers.

For the second year in a row, OIA says it has intel that students are finding it more difficult to pursue their complaints given the other challenges they are facing, but it’s also heard that some providers are finding it difficult to progress complaints effectively through their internal procedures in the context of other pressures.

Last year the overall number of “completion of procedures” letters in England hit a high, which it put down to a knock-on from delays in internal processes at the height of the pandemic. But the COP rise hasn’t abated either – that number is up again.

Detrimental impacts

In the mix, academic appeals are back up – with it reckons is probably about “no detriment” policies coming to an end, and while that means that proportionally so-called service issue complaints are down, “the proportions have not gone back to those we saw in earlier years.”

Interestingly, the trend of international students being over-represented in the figures has intensified – non-EU students accounted for 19 per cent of the student body in 2021/22, but 27 per cent of the complaints made to OIA in the period.

That’s almost certainly related to the big PGT recruitment boom – it’s also the case that 40 per cent of its complaints load was from PGs despite only making up 28 per cent of the student population.

The stats don’t include the resolution of a single group complaint from over 400 students – the provider isn’t named here, but it’s pretty obviously the Royal College of Art, which we looked at on the site last year.

Either the RCA uniquely treated students badly during Covid, or it represented a rare case of students supporting each other to understand and enforce their rights in the face of considerable procedural adversity.

If it’s the latter, it remains a national scandal that so few students made it as far as the OIA in the period.

A wider view

What’s going on within the complaints paints a more helpful picture – and every year we get a synthesis of its intel from students, their representative bodies and providers, and from two Advisory Panels, of the different pressures and worries that students are facing.

This year students’ mental health and wellbeing is a major concern, the OIA is worried about delays in providers’ internal processes, and there’s been an increase in complaints relating to harassment and sexual misconduct. You’d have to assume that all of those lines on the trend graph will continue to rise.

Ideally, you’d want to see providers learning from complaints and making changes as a result, especially those that have reached the OIA. But this year it says that just 60 per cent of its good practice recommendations (effectively directive wrist slaps) were implemented on time – down from 67 per cent last year, 76 per cent the year before, 81 per cent in 2019 and 88 per cent in 2018. It certainly feels like its influence over changing things on campus is on the wane – and we almost certainly need to know why.

As well as being confident that providers were taking steps to put things right that have gone wrong on campus, you’d also want to know that the issues and themes coming up in the case load were being addressed strategically and proactively by the regulator.

You might reasonably have low expectations of HEFCW to that and – that’s partly about its powers and an issue that ought to be put right when the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research is formed.

You might also assume that the Competition and Markets Authority will continue its approach of doing its level best to studiously ignore students and the higher education sector.

But what’s OfS’ excuse?

Flashing red lights

In its regulatory framework, OfS says one of the ways it will monitor individual providers for compliance and risk is through complaints received by the OIA – it is supposedly a “lead indicator”.

The content of complaints from the OIA is posited as a key source of student input into work more generally, and complaints from students are included as a way of assessing a number of the individual conditions of registration on quality and management and governance.

And it’s not just about intel on providers.

At various points since its inception OfS has reminded us that it recognises the importance of clear, effective complaints systems that students can access and use, and also regularly reminds us that it is working with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to look at what more it can do in this area, and ensure that student contracts, including their terms and conditions, are fair, transparent and accessible.

The OIA does its part – its agreement with OfS sees it sharing information gathered through complaints that identifies systemic issues and broad themes and concerns about quality and standards, non-compliance with the OIA Scheme and emerging trends that are relevant.

Maybe all of that information is actively used by OfS in its regulation of individual providers – but we’d never know, because those risk profiles are kept a secret and precious little enforcement of providers has ever emerged into the light.

Maybe that work on contracts and terms and conditions is still coming – but having been repeatedly delayed since it promised it to ministers on its inception, students would be wise not to hold their breath.

Maybe OfS is systematically working on the overrepresentation of PG students in complaints – but its own student panel accused it of acting like the Office for Full Time Home Domiciled Undergraduate Students just the other day, and there’s no sign of a PG NSS either.

Maybe the concerns about Disabled students will show up in an OfS priority at some point – but while OIA’s annual report attempts to find case studies that might nudge providers towards learning from the Natasha Abrahart case, OfS stays silent.

Perhaps there’s learning from strike complaints, implications arising from the rapid recruitment of international PGT students, or ways in which the OIA’s learning from harassment and sexual misconduct complaints might have made it into OfS’ new proposals on the issue. If there are, we’d never know.

Getting together

Back in 2018, OfS, the CMA and the OIA announced they were to meet formally quarterly to share information about general issues and principles, and that joint forum would hold an annual event, open to the public, with a focus on students and their representative bodies.

Each of the three organisations was going to give a presentation on its role and remit in the higher education sector and how it relates to other sector bodies, and there was going to be an opportunity for delegates to ask questions and discuss issues relating to consumer protection law, student complaints and good practice, and the regulation of the higher education sector. It never happened. And if the forum is still going, we’d need to FOI the minutes.

The sector’s instinct about this sort of stuff is often to breathe a sigh of relief – but if things were working properly, maybe some of the funding issues would have come to a head by now. Will every third year undergraduate student enrolling in September be getting what they were promised on their open day in 2019/20? If so, the real terms funding cut was fine. If not, this system of complaints ought to be highlighting the problem by now. But it isn’t.

Of course you might, from time to time, regard information from complaints as an insufficiently broad basket of evidence on which to base decisions about which issues to pursue, either with individual providers or sector-strategically. You might also want to make clear how your own engagement with students and the sector – not least your own panel – has impacted your decision making.

But when that panel is feeding back to the Lords that it is unable to see how student input makes any difference to the board or senior staff decision making, you’ll forgive me for assuming that the actual concerns of students arising from complaints or more generally couldn’t be further from the concerns of the office that regulates in their name.

And they’re being failed as a result.

3 responses to “Providers and their regulator aren’t learning from student complaints

  1. I seem to recall that the initial proposals for the B conditions intended to draw on the informal stage of institutions complaints processes to determine if there were issues at providers. This was, thankfully dropped as it failed to appreciate the fact that complaints processes at different providers don’t work in the same way and the ‘informal’ stage often doesn’t get recorded or, indeed, hold data that the OfS would have found useful (whilst complaints can relate to content, they more often actually relate to communication to a far greater extent).

    The OfS would be right to look at OIA outcomes, but those outcomes will usually be highly individual and not abut system-wide failings (unless, perhaps, you do get 400 students complaining and it’s judged to be justified). Given the OfS’ data fetish, it’s hard to see what they would meaningfully do with the complaint outcomes (although they ought to be doing something) given the relatively small numbers at each provider and on each course. If a provider has things working effectively, they will be trying to head-off most cases where a cohort has been dissatisfied due to industrial action (for example) at an earlier stage. We won’t see the true impact of the current action for at least another year or two though as I imagine most providers will ask students to only complain once the action is over and the impact can be assessed and the process itself will then take time. Then, of course, the students have a year to take it to the OIA and the OIA has to consider it. So there may be a considerable lag before we understand what the most annoyed students think is going on.

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