The new ombudsman for higher education in England and Wales has reported a rise in complaints from students, a trend that she partly attributes to an increasingly consumerist mindset among learners and the pressure that they are under to get a good degree.
Judy Clements, the chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, warned that swelling numbers of complaints could put significant pressure on her organisation’s resources and may force universities to contribute more to its running costs.
In her first interview since taking on the role in April, Ms Clements said that she would be monitoring the complaints figures “very tightly indeed”.
“I think there is evidence to suggest since June or July that they are starting to creep up again,” Ms Clements told Times Higher Education. “My concern is if they were to creep up to a point where there was a serious resource implication for us, to the point where we were into the backlog scenario.”
Ms Clements’ comments suggest that the first students to pay tuition fees of £9,000 a year in England are more likely to complain about their university experience than their predecessors.
A rise in complaints had been predicted by Rob Behrens, her predecessor, but failed to materialise in 2015, something that was attributed to a greater focus on resolving complaints internally before they reach the OIA and an extension of the deadline within which grievances can be submitted.
Ms Clements said that an increasingly consumerist attitude among students was likely to be a factor behind the rise.
“I think part of this is due to the new powers that students have since the increase of fees: they are consumers, very much so, and therefore where you may get students who would [previously] be content with a 2:2, the pressure to get the first or a 2:1 is not insignificant now,” Ms Clements said. “It’s about where students feel that they may not be getting value for money.”
Asked whether the increase in complaints was likely to be of a magnitude that could create significant additional demands on the OIA, Ms Clements said that this was “potentially” the case.
The OIA increased its subscription fees for larger institutions by 2.5 per cent this year and Ms Clements said that she was “confident” that universities would continue to support an effective ombudsman for the sector.
“I’m confident that we will be able to respond; if it means increasing the resources to meet the demand, we will have to do that,” she said. “What we can’t afford to compromise on is the quality of the work we do, our independence, our integrity and our service ethos.”
Last year, the OIA ordered higher education providers to pay a record £485,000 compensation to students, even though the total number of complaints received dropped 9.3 per cent year-on-year, to 1,850.