Student complaints in a challenging climate

Helen Megarry and Ben Elger reflect on a year of complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Helen Megarry is Independent Adjudicator at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA)

Ben Elger is Chief Executive at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA)

2023 was another complex and challenging year in the higher education sector. Increasingly acute financial pressures in many providers, the continuing high cost of living, housing issues, and ongoing concerns about student mental health and wellbeing were just some of the issues providers, students and those who support them had to contend with.

In this kind of context, it may seem hard to prioritise students’ complaints. But complaints shine a light on what’s not working for students, and give valuable insights into what might work better. They tell us about students’ expectations and their experience – and where there’s a gap between them. They hold great potential for learning and improvement.

Viewed with this mindset and approached at an organisational level, they can help to prevent similar issues arising and make things better for future students, which also benefits providers by reducing the need for resource to put right things that have gone wrong.

What lies beneath

Complaints often point to underlying issues, which may be longstanding and sometimes seen as too difficult to fix.

Complaints relating to academic appeals have for many years accounted for a significant proportion of our caseload, and the numbers rose in 2023. Of these, academic appeals based on late submission of requests for consideration of additional circumstances are the most common.

These complaints often don’t help the student involved and create a considerable volume of complaints and administrative burden for providers. While we see a lot of good practice in handling academic appeals, we encourage providers to think more widely about what more they may be able to do to reduce these kinds of issues arising, for example through course and assessment design.

Fair processes

A thread running through the complaints we see is the importance of fair processes. There are several different elements to a process being fair, and while we see many cases where providers have handled issues fairly, we also see ones where aspects of a process have not been fair. The principles of our Good Practice Framework give guidance on good processes.

Investigation of the issues is a key stage at which things sometimes go wrong. If the facts of a case are not sufficiently established, a decision based on them may not be sound. Disciplinary matters, and especially sexual misconduct and similar issues, can be particularly challenging to investigate fairly.

Where there is a reporting student, it is important both that there is sensitivity and care to that student and that the student suspected of the misconduct has enough information to be able to understand the allegations and challenge anything they believe to be incorrect. We have seen cases where providers have found it difficult to achieve this balance.

Fair procedures must also be accessible. As a start, they should be easy to find and written in clear and straightforward language. Accessibility also means supporting students who need advice and help with using the processes available to them. We see in our casework that students experience various barriers to doing this.

Student advice services and students’ unions and other student representative bodies have a vital role here: they are often best placed to support and advise students because they are familiar with the provider’s procedures and can help students to have a realistic view of the prospects for their complaint, as well as sometimes de-escalating what can be highly charged situations.

Seeing the individual

The importance of supporting students to fully access and make the most of their studies shows up very clearly in complaints. A lot of our casework involves students who have additional challenges of some kind – an international student trying to adapt to the different educational environment, a disabled student disproportionately impacted by changes to their course, a student struggling to manage their academic work in difficult personal circumstances.

In our Annual Report for 2023 we draw out some of the issues we saw in these kinds of complaints, and some of the learning from that. The complaints also highlight an underlying theme: the need to see each student as an individual, understanding their needs, taking a flexible approach, and tailoring the support provided.

It’s not easy for providers to do this in the context of large numbers of students, ever-increasing demands and constrained resources, but it is important. We often see complaints where the provider’s general approach has not worked for the individual student. The early stages of complaints processes offer an opportunity to put this right. Students who persist with a complaint often do so because they feel that they’ve not been listened to and heard, or don’t fully understand what has happened.

Being prepared for the worst

The increasing financial pressures in many providers are not only making it more difficult to support students effectively. They are also bringing into sharper focus another issue that we have long been concerned about – the potential impact of an unplanned provider closure on the students affected. We discussed this issue in more detail on Wonkhe earlier this year, including thinking about possible solutions.

Since then we have been engaging with a range of interested parties, looking into ways of providing some protection for students. This includes exploring arrangements that could make a fund available to compensate them as well as feeding into related discussion about a legislative route that would make students a higher priority in these worst-case circumstances.

Leave a Reply