Student complaints in the context of coronavirus

Felicity Mitchell and Ben Elger introduce the publication of the 2019 OAIHE annual report.

This week we published our annual report for 2019.

Usually this is a time to reflect on how our work has benefited students and the sector over the last year, as well as to renew our focus on our strategic priorities, recognising that there is much yet to do. To an extent this is true this year too: our report records a successful year for our organisation, in which we handled a high number of complaints, met or exceeded almost all of our KPIs, built on our work to share learning in the sector and consolidated our role as an integral but independent part of the higher education regulatory framework. All of this is still important. But this year the context is very different.

Adapting to the new realities

We are acutely aware that the coronavirus pandemic has already had a profound impact on the sector, and will shape its future for years to come. We understand that providers and their staff, current and future students, and student representative bodies are facing huge challenges. Like everyone else we are adapting to the changed circumstances, and we have been thinking a lot about what it all means for our approach to our work.

The fundamental values and principles that underpin our work have not changed. We will still promote fairness for students and keep it at the heart of what we do, engage with and listen to students, their representative bodies, providers and sector organisations, and play our part in improving policy and practice.

But now when we look at the circumstances of each complaint, we will be doing so in the context of a global pandemic that is having an unprecedented impact. We still expect providers to do what they can to try to minimise the impact of issues on their students, but we know that what this might look like in practice has changed. We will continue to consider the steps the provider has taken to address the student’s concerns when we are deciding what is reasonable in an individual case, but we all need to be realistic about what “reasonable” looks like and to recognise that this may continue to change over time. This applies to recommendations we make to put things right for individual students as well. We are also looking at how we may be able to adapt our review processes as we recognise that it may be difficult for students and providers to engage with us in the usual way.

Supporting students

Clarity and certainty are hard to come by at the moment. Providers are grappling with a huge number of issues. Students quite reasonably have a lot of questions they would like answered, but the honest answer is often that no-one knows yet. It is important that providers look for some level of consistency of approach in the interests of fairness to all students. We recognise that this needs to be balanced with finding an approach that works for different types of courses such as professional or practical courses. Frequent communication is vital, to explain what is known and what can be done and to be open about what isn’t or can’t, and to listen to and understand students’ concerns, working together to find solutions.

Supporting students through all of this is vital. It is especially important that providers are alert to students who may be more seriously affected or who may not be able to fully benefit from what might work for most students. This could include disabled students and those with mental health issues; students who don’t have access to equipment, good broadband or suitable work space; students with caring responsibilities; or those facing particular financial pressures. Providers need to do what they can to help these students in ways that work for them.

We have published some information for students which we hope is helpful.

Issues that could lead to complaints

In March we published a briefing note for providers on issues that could lead to complaints. This includes concerns around teaching, assessments, requests for special consideration and accommodation. Since then the situation has evolved significantly but we hope this is still useful to providers as they continue to think through the many different issues and how they can respond to them.

The bigger picture

Perhaps now more than ever there is a need for the sector to come together to navigate the challenges arising from the coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately students, providers and wider society have a common interest in the wellbeing of the higher education sector. A joined-up approach is also the best way to mitigate the impact of the situation for as many students as possible and enable them to have the best experience they can in the circumstances – and to help to avoid large numbers of complaints arising. A spirit of fairness is important too: what students can expect in these circumstances should not just come down to what is in their contract or what may or may be not covered by force majeure clauses.

We are continuing to contribute to an overall sector response as it emerges, and to engage with governments and organisations in the sector on relevant developments and proposals. A key part of this must be to avoid market exits where possible, especially disorderly exits. But we have previously made the case, including earlier this year on Wonkhe, that in the event of a provider closure students should not be left without a remedy, and we think it is important that the response to the coronavirus situation includes consideration of how to address this.

We don’t underestimate the scale of the challenges facing the sector. But we believe that the sector will rise to these challenges, guided by the shared aspiration of fairness for students.

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