Universities appear to be settling more complaints internally, with the number of unresolved grievances reaching the sector’s ombudsman falling for the first time in its history.
The number of complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator fell by 2 per cent in 2013 – a drop of 40 to 1,972 complaints, according to its annual report, published on 12 June.
That decline in the number of complaints breaks a trend that has resulted in the OIA’s caseload soaring by 20 per cent to 30 per cent year on year since 2009.
The surprising statistic comes despite figures obtained by the BBC last week showing that the number of student complaints received by universities was 10 per cent higher in 2012-13 – about 20,000 in total – than two years earlier, although the BBC numbers included appeals against academic results.
Fewer cases reaching the OIA may reflect an increased willingness by universities to bow to student pressure given the increasing number of challenges.
But Rob Behrens, who leads the OIA, said he believed that the dip reflected more effort by universities to resolve complaints at an early stage. “Many universities are putting more thought and resource into early resolution,” he said. “Both universities and students are seeing the benefit of settling cases as a constructive and faster way of getting resolution that works for both parties.”
Last year’s introduction of a case-related fee for universities with above-average numbers of complaints to the OIA had also encouraged institutions to resolve problems more quickly, Mr Behrens added.
About a dozen universities were paying significant sums – up to £40,000 – to the OIA on top of their regular subscriptions because of their high numbers of cases, he said.
David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said the figures suggest that “universities are finally getting their act together in processing complaints” and starting to deal with them before they reach the OIA.
Raechel Mattey, vice-president for union development at the National Union of Students, also found the results “encouraging”.
However, she said that institutions still needed to make their complaints procedures simpler, more open and more transparent. “Students should be supported more through the process, which should be made less intimidating and bureaucratic.”
Interventions and compensation
According to the annual report, there was also a “marked increase in settlements” brokered by the OIA between students and institutions, which led to payments totalling almost £60,000.
A total of £313,750 was also awarded to students in compensation in 2013 after OIA decisions, a rise of almost two-thirds from 2012, the report adds.
The notable cases upheld or deemed partly justified by the OIA in 2013 included:
- a part-time student whose course fees doubled from one academic year to the next
- an international postgraduate who had to return to his home country to avoid “over-staying” after his university failed to advise him that he needed to apply for a new visa on enrolment.
The OIA also criticised the practice of withholding students’ degrees if they had unpaid housing costs, saying that it was “not proportionate” to suspend academic services in this way.
The rebuke follows the case of a student whose graduation was disrupted because of an unpaid accommodation charge of £400.
Despite the dip in the number of complaints received by the OIA last year, Mr Behrens said that the impact of trebling undergraduate fees may yet lead to a rise in grievance numbers from 2015, when the first students paying £9,000 tuition fees complete their courses.
‘The tip of the “appeals” iceberg’
Daniel K. Sokol, a barrister who specialises in representing students in disputes, said that universities still needed to improve their case handling, citing the settlements brokered by the OIA in 25 per cent of its cases.
“That amounts to hundreds of cases that have been wrongly decided by the universities, at least as judged by the OIA,” Dr Sokol said.
“There are many more that never reach the OIA, where the student simply gives up after a protracted and distressing process,” he added.
Dr Sokol said that the number of complaints sent to the OIA still represents “the tip of the ‘appeals’ iceberg”. “That tip appears to have melted ever so slightly, but there is no guarantee that the submerged bulk has shrunk, grown or stayed the same,” he added.