This article is more than 2 years old

Do students have the energy to make complaints?

Felicity Mitchell and Ben Elger reflect on a year of complaints received by the Independent Adjudicator, with Covid, capacity and student characteristics important running themes
This article is more than 2 years old

Felicity Mitchell is the Independent Adjudicator at OIA.

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

We hope by next year we will be able to start our Annual Report with something other than “the year was dominated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”, but inevitably it is the theme that runs through our 2021 report.

Of the 2,763 complaints we received in the year, 37 percent arose at least in part from the impact of the pandemic, significantly more than in 2020.

It’s not surprising that more filtered through to us in 2021 because students need to raise their concerns through their higher education provider’s internal procedures first, and they then have 12 months to complain to us.

Long and winding road

Overall, the number of complaints we received in 2021 was 6 percent up on 2020, continuing the general upward trend. As with 2020, the increase was lower than in pre-pandemic years.

We think that the various and many pressures on students might be making it more of a challenge for some to pursue their complaints, in particular disabled students and those experiencing mental health difficulties.

We have heard from our Disability Experts Panel and from discussion groups we have held with disabled students that some feel they don’t have the physical or mental resources to pursue their complaint whilst also keeping up with their studies.

It is a serious concern if students are not making complaints because they don’t have the energy. As a complaints scheme we’re continuing to look at how we can make our process as easy as possible for students, and how we can best adapt to meet individual students’ needs.

We also want to help providers to address this through our good practice work. We are currently revising our Good Practice Framework: handling complaints and academic appeals, following some very useful interactive sessions we held earlier in the year, and we will look at including more guidance on how providers might be able to make it easier for students to navigate internal processes.

Blockages in the pipeline?

Another concern is that those working in complaints and appeals at providers are under considerable pressure themselves and in some cases this is leading to delays.

In a year when we missed our KPI of 75 percent for closing cases within six months of receipt for the first time in several years (we closed 69 percent in that timeframe) we understand how challenging it is to balance rising caseloads, increasing complexity, and pressures on staff.

But it is so important to resource complaints handling and student support and advice services effectively in these difficult times. Not doing so may just be storing up trouble down the road.

We are always cautious in identifying and interpreting trends in the complaints we see, because the number of students who complain to us is still very small in relation to the student body as a whole and many factors can influence whether a student pursues a complaint, and what they complain about.

Collective consumers

But one noticeable trend is the rise in the number of complaints about what we categorise as service issues, which includes concerns about teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities.

Complaints arising from the disruption caused by industrial action and the pandemic fall within this category, which partially explains the increase over the last three years or so.

Linked to this is a rise in the number of students complaining about their provider as a group, usually of around 10 to 30 students in the same cohort. Managing students who have similar concerns through the internal processes as a group can be significantly easier than considering each student’s complaint individually, especially where they have a well-organised representative.

We would like to thank the many dedicated students who acted as representative for their groups last year. We’ve found that group complaints can be easier to settle, perhaps partly because students have found it helpful to have our independent perspective on what is reasonable in deciding whether to accept what their provider is offering.

It’s obviously preferable, in general, for complaints to be resolved internally and we have been pleased to hear that providers and student advisers have found our published guidance and case summaries useful in this. In complaints that do reach us, we often find it can be helpful for providers and students to see examples of the approach we’ve taken in similar cases.

Last year there was a significant fall in the proportion of complaints arising from academic appeals which we attributed to the “no detriment” and safety net policies many providers had in place. In 2021 there was a small further reduction, perhaps because some students were still benefiting from these policies.

Diversity by ethnicity

In 2021 we progressed work to look at some aspects of our casework data by ethnicity, focusing on home students. This is an important but complex and multi-faceted area and we discuss in our report some of the work we have done so far.

In many aspects we didn’t find significant differences between students of different ethnicities, for example in the use students appeared to have made of support and advice, and in the outcomes of complaints to us that related to academic appeals. But there were some differences.

White students were proportionately more likely to complaint to us about service issues, and to receive favourable outcomes to their complaints about those issues. The numbers are small – different outcomes in just 10 cases would have removed the disparity – and we’ve not yet been able to identify any specific reasons for it, but any disparity is a concern.

We are continuing to monitor our case outcomes as well as engaging directly with students to further deepen our understanding of the experiences of students of different ethnicities.

Complaints are an often underrated source of learning. Our outreach work to share what we are seeing has been particularly important over the last couple of years, when so many complex and new issues have been arising for providers and students to work through.

Last year our regular workshops and webinars, and our many outreach calls and online meetings with providers and student representative bodies, were really useful two-way learning opportunities.

Independent but integral

Our learning from what we see in complaints also underpins our work as an integral part of the regulatory landscape. Our independence is essential to our ability to review complaints impartially and fairly, but through working with others we can promote a joined-up approach with a focus on fairness for students.

Our unique perspective and our experience and understanding of many students’ concerns enables us to make an important contribution to the development of policy and practice in the sector.

In 2021 we spent more time than ever working with governments, OfS, HEFCW, UUK, GuildHE, NUS and many others on pandemic-related developments, topical issues, and on legislative developments in England and in Wales.

The publication of the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill in November 2021 means that an integrated tertiary sector in Wales is now in touching distance. The Bill is expected to complete its passage through the Senedd in summer 2022, with implementation due to start in 2023. We are excited that this will mean more students will have access to our independent complaints scheme once provisions under the legislation come into effect.

Being able to bring an unresolved complaint to an independent ombuds scheme is an important part of achieving fairness for students. Most higher education providers in England and Wales are required by legislation to be members of our scheme but there are still some gaps. Providers and awarding bodies that are not required to be members can join voluntarily, and we are continuing to encourage them to do that.

In a year’s time, a new Independent Adjudicator will be taking up post to work alongside Ben in the OIA’s joint leadership structure. But we have much to do before then to manage our caseload effectively, provide a good service, share our learning, and play our part in the regulatory landscape. Our work isn’t always easy but it’s never dull!

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