Student complaints as we emerge from the pandemic

As we approach the second anniversary of the first Covid lockdown, Felicity Mitchell looks at what the OIA has been seeing in complaints

Felicity Mitchell is the Independent Adjudicator at OIA.

There’s no doubt that the effects of the pandemic will continue to have an impact on students as we come into its third year.

This academic year providers have been navigating a complex balance of risk, and it’s not easy to address the sometimes conflicting concerns and expectations of different groups of students, as well as looking out for staff.

The complaints we are seeing now reflect students’ experiences and concerns over the past year or so. In 2021 we received a little over 1,000 complaints involving issues arising from the impact of the pandemic and we are continuing to receive a fairly steady flow. This includes complaints from students whose expectations may have been raised by media and other voices pushing the importance of a return to fully face-to-face teaching.

But as Jim Dickinson points out in this piece, these issues are more nuanced than simply “getting a refund”. Complaints like this present complex questions for us to grapple with. What exactly have the students been promised? Can it be said that a provider hasn’t acted reasonably in adopting a hybrid approach, if its own risk assessments supported its decisions?

Some students have had difficult dilemmas to try to resolve and are even now worried about a return to face-to-face for understandable reasons. Many international students have been concerned about having to travel to the UK.

In some cases, students have been told the only alternative to a return to face-to-face is to step off the course for a period – something that is impossible for many.

In all of these situations, providers need to listen to their students and to try to find a way to resolve their concerns, giving a clear explanation of why the provider is doing what it is doing, setting out what options the students have, and supporting them to make decisions. Putting the time in at an early stage to try to understand what has gone wrong for students, rather than acting defensively to dismiss their concerns, is always likely to be a good investment. Concerns can quickly snowball into much larger complaints if students feel they are being brushed off.

And as some commentators have recently highlighted, it’s really important that we don’t inadvertently lose any accessibility gains that been made over the last couple of years. Disabled students and those with caring or other responsibilities have in some cases found it easier to access teaching and assessments more flexibly. We should be building on learning from the experiences of these students.

Industrial action

Covid hasn’t been the only cause of disruption to this generation of students. We have already seen complaints about the cumulative effect of industrial action and the pandemic and with industrial action taking place again it’s likely that we will see some more this year. In the minds of many students disruption to their experience caused by Covid and disruption caused by industrial action is part of a continuum and industrial action may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and leads to a complaint. It’s important for providers to think about such complaints holistically and not to be too dogmatic about time limits for raising concerns.

The complaints arising from the pandemic and those arising from industrial action have many common features. They tend to relate to disruption to teaching and learning, missed learning opportunities and issues with assessments or student support. We have drawn together our guidance on handling complaints arising from significant disruption.

Student support

It’s not just the NHS where the disruption of the last two years has caused backlogs. In many providers, disability support, student advice services, and complaints and appeals departments have all taken a hit. This is likely to have a significant impact on the number and nature of complaints.

We are already hearing about delays in support for students and in processing their complaints and appeals. The potential for significant impact on students, and the strain on providers’ staff, is clear. In one complaint file, we read “We are heading to breaking point – and I’m afraid timely dealing with complaints is not high on our list of priorities”.

Often disabled students are finding themselves under pressure from all angles. Delays with assessments and issues with funding are being compounded by problems accessing hard pressed disability support and student advice services at their provider. We are hearing that some disabled students feel they have no option but to drop their complaint, or even abandon their studies, because they no longer have the energy to continue.

On top of this, the profound impact of the pandemic on students’ and others’ mental health is likely to linger. We are continuing to see many students who are really struggling and the sustained levels of stress on providers’ staff is often playing out visibly in the complaints we see.

This is all a very significant concern. We know that many providers are under considerable pressure but protecting and even strengthening student support services, particularly for disabled students, is such an important investment. It can pay dividends not just in helping students through their studies and improving their experience, but also in de-escalating potential complaints and resolving them early.

Kindness matters

The pressures of the pandemic have brought into focus the need for a kinder, more human touch. In recent years we have been embedding kindness in our approach and adopting a less formal style of working. This has involved trying to be clearer with students from the outset of their complaint to us about what they can expect, by explaining upfront what we do and how we do it, listening carefully to what they tell us about their complaint and making sure we understand their concerns.

Part of our role is to encourage providers to resolve complaints at an earlier stage, which is often kinder for everyone. We’ve been publishing guidance and case summaries as the pandemic has evolved so that students, their advisers, and providers have a better understanding of where a complaint might go.

Concerns and complaints are easier to resolve if people can avoid falling into the trap of being defensive. This applies to us as much as to providers. When things go wrong (as inevitably they sometimes do), we try to acknowledge this and to say sorry if we’ve not done something as well as we could have done.

We have seen some benefits to this kinder approach both in terms of how students are experiencing our service and the feedback we have been getting, and for our own case-handlers. I have been part of the Carnegie (UK) Trust’s Kindness in Leadership Network, and to make our approach more visible, this year we’re adopting a Commitment to Kindness based on the Commitment that it developed.

Looking forward

There has been a noticeable shift in complaints to us from academic appeals towards what we call “service issues” (with most of the Covid complaints falling into the service issue category because they relate to course delivery). This pattern looks set to continue for some time yet. But it’s difficult to predict whether any return to pre-pandemic assessment patterns might lead to an increase in the number of academic appeals, and how providers will assess students’ requests for additional consideration in what feels like a transition year.

The pressures on the timeliness of our processes are likely to continue in the context of a continuing steady rise in the number of student complaints. The nature of the complaints we are seeing continues to evolve, with many involving multiple complex issues. The ongoing impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health and wellbeing means that more students are finding it challenging to engage effectively with our processes, and need additional support and time as we review their complaint. Managing our caseload as effectively and efficiently as we can remains one our top priorities.

We will be continuing our programme of engagement and outreach with students, student representative bodies and providers. We particularly value the insights we gain from student discussion groups which we hold through the year. And we will keep working with governments at Westminster and in Wales, and with sector regulators, to use our learning from complaints to influence policy and practice where we can.

All of this is underpinned by the independence of our organisation. As an ombuds scheme we are independent from students whose complaints we review and the providers those complaints are about, and from regulators and governments. Our independence is key to the impartiality and perception of impartiality of our reviews, and to confidence in our Scheme. Our focus will, as ever, be on whether a provider has followed fair procedures and, most importantly, whether the provider has acted reasonably and the outcome is fair for the student. We need to reach decisions about what is fair and reasonable without fear or favour, and that is what we will continue to do.

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