Curbing student complaints caused by Covid-19

Universities must ensure students are satisfied with Covid-19 contingency plans to offset complaints and requests for refunds, argues Susan Matthews

June 6, 2020
Complaints department

In April, the UK’s Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) revealed that it received a record number of complaints in 2019. The watchdog said students demanding refunds for lost teaching time after lecturer walkouts was one of the factors behind the rise. The impact of industrial action, however, pales in comparison with the disruption caused by Covid-19. To avoid complaints hitting new heights in 2020, universities must agree contingency plans with students before the new academic year begins.

The stakes are high. The National Union of Students has said students whose courses have been disrupted by the pandemic should be reimbursed for the 2019-20 academic year and allowed to repeat it at no extra cost. While unlikely, this is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction and an indication of how significant the fallout of this pandemic could be for a sector already under financial pressure.

Students are more likely to forgive disruption to their studies during a time of national crisis. However, as the long-term impact of Covid-19 on courses becomes clearer, the scope of complaints is going to expand. Students expecting to continue or start courses in September with an industry placement, or a year abroad, for example, will be anxious to understand what plans their provider has put in place if they are no longer possible.

Getting ahead of this is the only way for universities to offset a spike in complaints and requests for refunds. Course controllers should consult with student groups and faculty to agree a plan everyone can live with. This will not be an easy task, and the solution will be different for every course. It might be the case that a year abroad is delayed, or an industry placement is delivered online. But putting practicalities to one side, the most important thing is that where possible, the contingency plan is agreed and communicated effectively and consistently to students.

The same applies to the support services that students are contractually obliged to receive as part of their tuition. For example, universities are still responsible to offer support on careers and employability. Over and above being equipped to advise students entering a difficult market for graduate jobs, careers services must communicate how they will be affected and tell students if they can’t take advantage of the industry ties that attracted them to the university in the first place.

Once institutions have the next phase of their Covid-19 response firmed up and communicated to students, they can focus on delivery.

UK universities had to act quickly when lockdown measures were announced, and subpar online teaching quickly became a high-profile source of student complaints. The Department for Education was forced to clarify that if universities were “unable to facilitate adequate online tuition then it would be unacceptable for students to be charged for any additional terms”.

With social distancing expected to be in place for some time, online teaching is no longer an emergency provision. The University of Cambridge announced that it would deliver all its teaching online in the next academic year. If students are going to be content with the format for a potentially considerable part of their course, it needs to be on par with teaching the university is able to deliver under normal circumstances.

This starts with accessibility. As soon as you move something online, you run the risk of alienating those with specific needs. In this case, students with poor eyesight or substandard internet connection are just two examples. Universities have a responsibility to cater for these groups and may need to make bespoke arrangements to avoid legitimate complaints and requests for refunds.

Maintaining academic standards online is another hurdle, but it can be particularly challenging for universities with international students. Many universities made emergency arrangements with partner institutions to deliver more of a course than usual at the start of the crisis to students in different time zones. To avoid complaints arising from diverging standards, universities should reassess who is responsible for delivering teaching online and, if partner institutions are still doing so, ensure that they are consistent with the materials those in the UK are receiving.

More broadly, a focus on consistency will put universities in a good position as they enter the next phase of their Covid-19 response.

From a complaint handling perspective, a strategy that anticipates and categorises student issues thematically, with fixed responses, will help universities process and resolve complaints quickly. Complaints departments should also be able to justify decisions concerning changes affecting teaching delivery. Again, this will be different for every institution, but it is sensible for universities to see what other providers in their peer group are doing in the face of Covid-19 to ensure that they aren’t deviating from industry best practice.

Ultimately, if a student is satisfied with how their complaint has been handled and confident that their provider is doing everything in their power to deliver the course, they will be less likely to press for a refund, escalate it to the OIA or, in exceptional cases, take legal action. But this can only happen if universities have assiduously communicated their contingency plans in place with student and faculty buy-in before the new academic year begins.

Susan Matthews is a principal associate at national law firm Weightmans LLP and helps universities develop strategies to handle student complaints.

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