Universities pay out record compensation as complaints rise

Ombudsman says difficulties finding alternative remedies during pandemic partly to blame for £1.3 million bill

May 4, 2022
Complaints department

Universities in England and Wales were told by the sector ombudsman to pay a record amount of compensation to students last year as complaints continued to soar because of the pandemic.

New data released by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) in its annual report show that it received 2,763 complaints in 2021, a 6 per cent increase on 2020, which in itself was a record year.

Of these, 27 per cent were found to be justified, partly justified or settled on behalf of the student – a slight increase on previous years – and the OIA recommended that action be taken in 300 cases.

The body partly attributed the rise in financial compensation – which increased from £742,132 in 2020 to £1.3 million in 2021 – to the difficulties in finding other remedies to complaints because of the pandemic.

In normal circumstances, it would look to recommend measures such as providing students with alternative arrangements for accessing learning or facilities or allowing them to retake part of a course or an assessment, but a spokeswoman said these were either insufficient or difficult to achieve during national lockdown periods.

Instead, financial compensation was favoured, with a single case leading to an award of just over £68,000, and 63 students receiving more than £5,000 each.

Covid-related complaints accounted for 37 per cent of the total, with students on design, creative and performing arts courses among the most likely to complain, often because of difficulties accessing equipment or the cancellation of opportunities such as placements and study abroad programmes.

Other complaints came from international students, who objected to having to pay higher fees despite all learning being done remotely, and from those who struggled with technology, especially during timed online exams.

The OIA said that the disruption caused by the pandemic and long-running industrial action have caused the proportion of complaints relating to service issues – including teaching and supervision – to nearly double from 23 per cent of the total in 2018 to 45 per cent in 2021.

Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator at the OIA, said that it had been “another year dominated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”. She added: “Many students experienced disruption to their lives and to their studies, and providers worked hard to deliver learning and support whilst balancing complex considerations and risks.”

She said that the body had managed to close more complaints (2,654) than ever before but the report notes that it did not meet a target of closing 75 per cent of all complaints within six months, instead closing only 69 per cent in this timeframe.

Aside from the pandemic, the number of students making complaints related to academic appeals – including assessments and grades – continued to fall from 33 per cent in 2020 to 29 per cent last year and had a lower chance of success than complaints relating to service issues.

Elsewhere, complaints relating to sexual misconduct remained small but have risen slightly in recent years, according to the OIA.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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