Students forgave universities during Covid. Will it cut both ways?

The current cost of living crisis is causing a great deal of anxiety across the country and the impact of rising energy, food and transport costs is having a significant impact on many students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That’s the opening line in a snappy new briefing note from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE) on responding to the cost of living crisis by learning from complaints.

In some ways, it’s all a bit of a remit stretch. This isn’t really a briefing about avoiding complaints from students, or even avoiding a dressing down from OIA over poor handling of a complaint in the context of cost of living – it’s just a bunch of sensible advice from an adjudicator that sees students in many of their most desperate moments.

The Office “for Students” might reasonably look on from the sidelines and wonder how it has thus far failed to at least set some of its regulatory requirements in the context of a crisis that could so obviously be impacting both providers and students.

There’s a couple of areas of focus in the note. One is on changes – and includes advising providers to be mindful in the context of an accommodation crisis causing students to potentially live miles away, as well as ensuring that changes to a course or programme or to facilities because of financial pressures or capacity issues are handled with consultation and sensitivity to the potential impacts on people.

It may be appropriate to consider bursaries to meet extra travel expenses or rental costs, or other practical or financial remedies”

…is almost certainly a line written with first-year housing guarantees in mind – but morally providers ought to be thinking of international students arriving with housing and families in tow too.

The bulk of the note is on direct impacts on students – where OIA reminds us that those who were just getting by financially before may no longer be able to manage, while others may be experiencing financial difficulties for the first time and not be well equipped to cope:

Students with experience of the care system, disabled students and those with health conditions, those with caring responsibilities, and international students may face particular challenges… In some cases, students’ wellbeing and mental health may be significantly affected, especially coming on top of the long-term impacts of the pandemic.

When OIA says that it’s important not to underestimate the impact that financial hardship can have – especially on those who are already disadvantaged or vulnerable – it will be coming both from a good place, but also from bitter experience over the casework it sees where providers can tend to apply both regulation and legal defence in their own rather than students’ interests.

There’s also material on financial support, part-time work, interruption, clarity on costs and being flexible and sympathetic over any impacts on student academic performance. For example, while many providers’ regs would ignore a financial crisis if a student tried to claim extenuating circumstances, OIA says it might be fair to take it into account if an unexpected or unpredictable financial snafu, such as the withdrawal of an expected source of financial support, got in the way of their studies.

As is often the case with the OIA, the appeal is for providers to be flexible over what might look like rigid rules. That makes lots of sense – but having a big sign over the door saying “no” won’t help those put off by the sign even if it helps those bold enough to walk through the door anyway. The complaints that don’t get made continue to be the adjudicator’s blind spot in more ways than one.

Nevertheless, the subtext is pretty clear – by and large students were sympathetic to providers during Covid and displayed both flexibility and understanding, even when providers were having to stretch consumer protection promises and academic delivery standards beyond reasonable limits to keep fee cheques coming in. In sympathy, patience and understanding terms, it’s payback time.

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