Student complaints in England and Wales reach record levels again

Ombudsman records sixth straight rise in grievances as pandemic and industrial action continued to disrupt universities

一月 25, 2023
Source: iStock

The number of complaints made to the higher education ombudsman for England and Wales has risen for the sixth year in a row.

A total of 2,850 complaints were received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) in 2022, a 3 per cent increase on the 2,763 lodged in 2021, which itself represented a 6 per cent rise on 2020, when 2,604 were registered. It means that records for the number of complaints in the sector have been set every year for the past three years.

The number of complaints had been rising steadily even before the pandemic, with the last decline recorded in 2016, when grievances fell to a low of 1,517.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on universities’ operations exacerbated the trend, and sector leaders might have hoped to have seen a decrease in 2022, a year less affected by lockdown measures or other restrictions.

However, as grievances are brought to the watchdog only once a university’s internal complaints processes have been exhausted, the pandemic was likely still to blame for a proportion of the rise. Disruption caused by long-running industrial action across UK campuses was also likely to have had an impact.

“The number of complaints we receive has been increasing for many years now, and we think this seems likely to continue,” an OIA spokesperson said. “It’s difficult for us to comment on the factors driving this increase as there have been a number of events in recent years that have impacted this in addition to the disruption caused by the pandemic, including – for example – industrial action.”

Despite the increased volume of complaints, the OIA said it had closed its highest ever number of cases in 2022, with 2,821 dealt with, compared with 2,654 in 2021. A complaint from a “large group of students” was also closed in the past year.

The body, however, again missed its target of closing 75 per cent of complaints within six months of receiving them, wrapping up only 69 per cent in this time frame. It took an average of 135 days to close a case, compared with 131 days in 2021.

In its report, the OIA noted that there were “challenges in managing significant and sustained increases” in complaint volumes and said it was preparing for the number of complaints to increase again in future years. It is proposing to raise its subscription fees by 3 per cent in 2023 to cope with the growing pressures.

“Both the number and the complexity of the complaints we have received over the last couple of years have made it challenging for us to review them as quickly as we’d like, but we are continuing to work to reduce turnaround times,” the spokesperson added.

A new team will oversee the ombudsman in 2023 as Felicity Mitchell comes to the end of her term as independent adjudicator in April. She will be replaced in May by Helen Megarry, a former adjudicator at His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, who also oversaw decisions made under the Windrush Compensation Scheme, set up for those who may have suffered losses because they could not prove that they had a right to live in the UK.

Dame Suzi Leather also comes to the end of her term as chair of the OIA board in September. The OIA said a new chair would be recruited over the course of the year.



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Reader's comments (1)

It's always disheartening to read that a body like the OIA considers "industrial action" as an example of events that lead to disruption. How about naming increased class sizes, unrealistic academic workloads and poor workforce planning contributing to poor student satisfaction levels?