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HEi-think: Student complaints show how small mistakes can cause big problems

As the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education publishes its annual report, the new OIA chief executive Judy Clements says that while the number of student complaints has fallen to its lowest level since 2011, a few cases show how small mistakes by institutions can have a big impact.

 

The OIA Annual Report, published today (9 June 2016), shows a remarkable consistency in student complaints.

The majority of complaints to the OIA are about issues that affect a student’s academic status – the marks given for an assessment, decisions on progress between years, degree classifications, and termination of studies.

The OIA can’t interfere with academic judgment but we can look at whether the higher education provider has followed its own procedures correctly and whether its decisions were fair and unbiased. One of the complaints described in the report revealed a number of errors in the way the university had applied its assessment criteria. We recommended that they re-mark the student’s work, which they duly did, and her mark changed from a fail to a pass. Where we identify procedural errors in the way an academic appeal has been handled it is often possible for the university to set up a fresh appeal as a way of settling the case.

There is no change either in the balance of complaint outcomes. Every year the majority of complaints are found Not Justified, and this reflects good practice by higher education providers. Nevertheless, each year between 20 and 25 per cent of cases are either settled or found Justified or Partly Justified.

Justified cases in 2015 included some that related to universities promising more than they delivered, or not being clear about additional fees. There were also cases arising from mistakes in handling visa applications and renewals.

A disproportionate number of complaints to the OIA are from postgraduate students. Among these, students’ difficulties with PhD supervision are a common and persistent theme. The increase in financial compensation to students is almost entirely accounted for by a small number of large payments to students whose supervision broke down.

As a newcomer to higher education – I took over as the Independent Adjudicator in April 2016 – one of the first things to strike me is the impact that quite small initial mistakes can have on students, especially if they are allowed to escalate. The Good Practice Framework for Handling Complaints and Academic Appeals, which came into effect in September 2015, puts an emphasis on early resolution.

The OIA is also committed to closing complaints quickly. We simplified our processes in 2015 and that has contributed to reducing handling times.

The biggest change for the OIA in 2015 was to our own remit. 500 higher education providers joined the OIA Scheme in September, and the recent government white paper indicates that many more will follow as the sector expands. It is still too early to say whether students at these providers raise different issues. I will comment on that in the 2016 report.

alexis84 / 123RF
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