Complaints to ombudsman for England and Wales up by fifth

Spike may be a sign of a more consumerist attitude among students

April 29, 2019

The number of complaints considered by the higher education ombudsman serving England and Wales has leapt by 20 per cent, in what may be a sign of an increasingly consumerist attitude among students.

In its annual report, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education says it received 1,967 new complaints in 2018, compared with 1,635 in 2017.

The OIA, which can adjudicate on complaints only if students have exhausted the internal appeal process at their institution, closed 1,722 complaints.

Potential reasons for the growth in the number of complaints to the OIA include an increase in complaints and academic appeals to universities, the report says, adding that this may be because students are becoming “more aware of their consumer rights and the ‘cost’ of their studies”.

Saddled with high tuition fees and considerable debts, some students complain to the OIA that they are unhappy with their course and believe that they are “not getting good value for money”.

“Students often link complaints about poor quality teaching or lack of facilities to their tuition fees,” the OIA report adds.

Sarah Liddell, head of the leadership office at the OIA, said it was “quite difficult to isolate any particular cause” for the increase in complaints.

One factor might be last year’s industrial action over proposed changes to pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

About 50 complaints to the OIA arose from that industrial action, although in more than a third of these cases students had not exhausted the internal appeal process at their institution.

In total, 20 per cent of the cases closed in 2018 were “justified, partly justified or settled” in favour of the student, lower than 24 per cent in 2017.

Half the cases closed in 2018 were about academic status, while 23 per cent were about service issues such as the quality of teaching, supervision and facilities.

The OIA intervened with recommendations to put things right, including financial remedies, in more than 170 students’ cases.

Compensation of £366,107 was paid to students, while another £273,408 was paid in settled cases, the report says.

A total of 17 students were awarded more than £5,000, and two were awarded more than £40,000, including £54,200 to a disabled student who complained about “difficulties with the arrangements in place to support their needs”.

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