Student complaints hit RECORD high last year – find out if you could get compensation

Last year, an ombudsman received the most student complaints they’ve ever had. Here’s an overview of the complaints, plus info on how to complain to uni (and maybe get compensation!).

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Let’s face it – it’s not been the easiest couple of years for students.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak turned uni life upside down, the UCU strikes have been causing a fair amount of disruption to teaching and classes since 2018.

So, it’s perhaps no wonder that 2019 saw the highest ever number of student complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). Students in England and Wales can approach the OIA after complaining to their university, if they’ve not been happy with the uni’s response.

Here’s a rundown of some of the key info from OIA’s report, along with advice at the end for anyone thinking of making a complaint about their university – particularly about its response to the current pandemic.

Thinking of complaining about the UCU lecturer strikes? Our guide will talk you through it.

Student complaints in England and Wales in 2019

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Today, a new report has been published by the OIA about the complaints they received last year. In 2019, the OIA received 2,371 complaints, up by 21% from the 1,967 complaints they’d received in 2018.

While the numbers of complaints are still pretty small compared to the overall student body, they give an interesting insight into the kinds of things students are making complaints about, and how much they’re getting in compensation as a result…

Not from England or Wales? Students in Scotland can bring complaints to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), and in Northern Ireland, contact the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO).

How much compensation did students get?

When the OIA closes complaints, they categorise them as either Justified, Partly Justified, Not Justified, Settled, Not Eligible, or Withdrawn. For complaints that they think are Justified or Partly Justified, they’ll often recommend that the student receives a certain amount of compensation from their university.

In 2019, there was a total of £745,388 recommended and/or offered to students through settlements after OIA looked into complaints.

23 students were awarded compensation of £5,000 or more, and the highest single recommendation was just over £53,000.

In the case of the recommendation of around £53,000, this was for a student who complained about their PhD studies – the money included a refund of some of their fees and expenses, as well as compensation for distress and inconvenience.

What were student complaints about?

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Among the complaints in 2019, 50 were related to industrial action from 2018. Complaints about 2019’s strikes will be reviewed in 2020, and we are very interested to see how the numbers of complaints will compare.

Here are the categories of complaints that the OIA closed in 2019, ranked from most to least common:

  1. Academic appeals – 48%
  2. Service issues – 29% (complaints about the strikes are included in this category)
  3. Financial – 5%
  4. Disciplinary matters (academic) – 4%
  5. Equality law / human rights – 4%
  6. Welfare / non-course service issues – 4%
  7. Disciplinary matters (non-academic) – 3%
  8. Fitness to practice – 2%
  9. Not categorised – 1%.

Which courses had the most complaints?

Rank Subject area Number of OIA complaints 2019
1 Business and administrative studies 391
2 Subjects allied to medicine 217
3 Creative arts and design 206
4 Law 188
5 Engineering and technology 151
6 Social studies 138
7 Biological studies 138
8 Psychology 122
9 Medicine and dentistry 120
10 Computer science 106

Can you get compensation from your university over coronavirus?

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One thing that we know a lot of you will want to know is: can students complain and get compensation over their university’s response to the coronavirus pandemic? Well, we asked the OIA to find out…

Sarah Liddell, Head of Leadership Office at the OIA, said:

We understand that this is a very worrying time for everyone and we want to help students and providers to navigate this unprecedented situation.

We have published some information about the coronavirus situation, including FAQs for students.

If you’re unhappy with your uni’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and wish to complain, Liddell suggests you take these steps:

We would encourage students who have concerns about how their university or other higher education provider has responded to the coronavirus pandemic to talk to the provider to see if the issues can be resolved.

It is important both that providers do everything they can to minimise the impact of the disruption and that students are realistic about what is possible in these unprecedented circumstances.

If the issues can’t be resolved, then the student can pursue a complaint through the provider’s formal complaints procedure, and then to us if they are still unhappy.

And, could you be entitled to compensation? Unfortunately, that’s hard to say for sure at this point:

We can’t say in principle about compensation, because we look at the circumstances of each individual case we review and consider how best to put things right if something has gone wrong.

Ultimately, although compensation is not guaranteed, if you wish to make a complaint about your university’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, or any other issue, it is still worth doing so.

Overview of the complaints process for university students

For any students looking to complain about their university, whether about its handling of the coronavirus outbreak or otherwise, here’s a quick summary of the steps:

  1. Raise your complaint with your university first and follow the formal complaints process.
  2. If you’re unhappy with the uni’s response, you can then bring the complaint to the OIA (or the SPSO in Scotland / NIPSO in Northern Ireland).
  3. The ombudsman will decide whether they think your complaint is justified and if there’s more the uni can do beyond what they’d suggested to you after your initial complaint.
  4. Then, if they think you should receive compensation, or if the uni should take any actions in response to your complaint, they will make recommendations as they see appropriate.

For more advice about complaining and getting compensation from your university, check out our handy guide.

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