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HEi-think: Student complaints steady but more challenge HE service and "lads culture"

While the number of student complaints appears to have almost plateaued, universities are being challenged by a sharp rise in the proportion that are over the quality and availability of resources, teaching and facilities, and issues relating to a "lad's culture" on campus, warns Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education, which has published its annual report.


The annual report of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, published today, tells us several things about student complaints and how they are handled.

First, the independent, ‘classic’ ombudsman scheme for students continues to work well as a complaints handler of last resort. OIA decisions are evidence-based, carry authority within the higher education sector, and recommendations are invariably implemented by universities.

Second, most complaints in 2014,  as in previous years, were  about ‘academic status’, submitted by students who have appealed to their university about a mark or a degree outcome, or being withdrawn from a course. Students on degree courses that lead to a professional qualification, such as law and subjects allied to medicine are more likely than other students to complain. A higher proportion of postgraduates than of undergraduates complain. Unsurprisingly, complaints are statistically more likely when the stakes are highest.

Third, the number of complaints and the overall pattern of outcomes have now been stable for three years. In 2014 we received more cases than ever before (2,040), but the difference over the previous record year is small. We closed 2,175 cases. Almost a quarter of cases (23 per cent) closed in 2014 were Justified or Partly Justified, or the OIA brokered a settlement between the student and the university. That means that, because the student came to the OIA, the university looked at the case again. Additionally, universities paid a total of £400,000 in financial compensation to students for errors, distress and inconvenience.

Fourth, while overall there is little variation between years, a couple of areas stand out. The proportion of complaints about the availability or quality of resources, teaching, supervision and facilities rose to 15 per cent in 2014, from nine per cent in 2013. These cases are in effect about setting and meeting expectations. While the number of complaints remains small, the OIA case-load shows that growing concerns about the ‘lads culture’ and sexual harassment are challenging universities.

Fifth, students and universities do not always help themselves. The annual report lists some of the most common reasons the OIA finds cases Not Justified – students who cannot provide any evidence to support their claims, students who do not take up support offered to them, students who break regulations. It also includes examples of universities making mistakes in the way that they deal with some cases or gaps in procedures.

Sixth, there is a strong commitment to improving the way complaints are handled. The OIA, in partnership with others including the National Union of Students, has published a Good Practice Framework that higher education providers can draw on to develop their procedures for handling complaints and academic appeals.

From this coming September, following the passage of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, higher education students at alternative providers, further education colleges and providers of School-Centred Initial Teacher Training will be able to bring their complaints directly to the OIA. We do not yet know whether these students will complain more or less often, or about the same or different issues than the more than ten thousand students who have used the OIA in the ten years we have been working. What we do know is that, with a wider remit, we will be even better placed to work with the sector to make sure that complaints are properly addressed.

Rob Behrens