Universities are declaring only a fraction of the student complaints made against them, figures show, prompting accusations that they are deliberately minimising the figures.
“Once a student has finished the university’s internal complaints or appeals procedures, the university must promptly send a Completion of Procedures Letter to the student,” state official rules from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
The number of each institution’s “completion of procedures” (COP) letters is then published annually, with the OIA encouraging universities to compare their figures against other institutions of similar size.
However, statistics released in response to Freedom of Information requests and seen by Times Higher Education show that some universities are sending COP letters only to a handful of the students whose appeals were unsuccessful.
Anglia Ruskin University issued only four of the letters in 2011-12 despite facing 835 appeals relating to academic status, of which 156 were rejected by the institution. Just a single complaint against Anglia Ruskin was listed with the OIA that year.
The universities said that the low numbers of letters reflected the fact that the students whose appeals were rejected did not take their complaints to the next level, such as a dean of students or a complaints committee, and therefore did not exhaust internal institutional procedures.
Anglia Ruskin added that it had now amended its procedures after guidance from the OIA, but King’s College and Durham believed that their practice was in line with the ombudsman’s advice.
However, David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said that requiring students to pursue lengthy complaints procedures was in effect “gaming” the system because most of them would then give up on their appeals – and thus not appear on the complaints tally.
Universities with low numbers of COP letters, which alert students to the existence of the OIA, were also less likely to incur the case-related fees that will be introduced next year for institutions with high numbers of complaints, added Mr Palfreyman, co-author of The Law of Higher Education.
“Such gaming of the system is, of course, entirely to be expected,” he said. “It minimises the OIA fee, saves time on administration and processing complaints, and enhances apparent student satisfaction – all key stuff as higher education is increasingly marketised.”
Lack of consistency
Other universities said that their low conversion rate from complaints to COP letters reflected the fact that not all complainants requested them.
The University of Roehampton, where 171 rejected academic appeals led to just seven of the letters in 2011-12, said students could ask for them once they had received an outcome letter relating to their grievance.
Other institutions, however, appeared to issue the same letters automatically once a student had been informed of their decision, with the number of rejected appeals broadly matching the number of letters issued.
One pro vice-chancellor, who asked not to be named, said the data show that some universities are “not playing fair”. Universities with accessible complaints systems were being named and shamed – and were likely to incur extra fees – while the “real villains of the piece are neither being criticised nor playing fair with their students”.
“It’s like hammering someone who makes an error on their tax form but turning a blind eye to those who don’t submit returns at all,” the source said.
There were 2,700 COP letters submitted to the OIA in 2011-12 from the 88 universities that responded to the FoI request. A total of 4,8 academic appeals were considered, of which 3,243 were rejected.
The lack of transparency over complaint levels and inconsistency between universities underlined the need for ministers to create a stronger “student champion”, even a new “Office for Tertiary Education”, argued Mr Palfreyman.
“Students need better consumer protection and we can’t rely upon some cobbled-together creature made up of the remnant of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with the OIA acting post hoc with the National Union of Students,” he said.
An OIA spokeswoman said that clear guidance was issued to universities on COP letters, which “are important because they set out for the student the procedures that have been followed and remind them about the OIA”.
“The OIA expects universities to issue COP letters promptly to all students who have reached the end of the internal process,” she added.