Grievances are 'mishandled'

August 4, 2006

A refusal to offer an 'unbiased' review of student complaints is causing concern. Jessica Shepherd reports

Some universities are mishandling student complaints about academics, the ombudsman for the sector has found.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education is concerned that too often institutions refuse to provide an independent and unbiased panel to hear a student's appeal.

Some university appeals procedures also failed to provide students with the reasons why an appeal was unsuccessful.

The OIA made the criticisms this week in its 2005 annual report, which also shows that the number of student complaints has doubled compared with the year before.

Its head, Baroness Ruth Deech, said this was partly because students and their parents were more determined than ever to obtain value for money with the introduction of tuition fees. The ombudsman dealt with 350 eligible complaints in 2005, more than a third of which were upheld.

The OIA reported half as many complaints the previous year - although the office came into existence only in April 2004.

The highest number of complaints, making up 43 per cent of the total, were from students who believed that they deserved higher marks for exams or for their degree or had been unfairly treated in an appeal on this issue.

The next most common complaint, made by 33 per cent of students, was that a university had reneged on contractual duties by, for example, failing to provide a particular course or service.

Discrimination and disciplinary matters accounted for 7.4 and 7.1 per cent of complaints respectively. Some 4.6 per cent of complaints concerned plagiarism, cheating, welfare and accommodation.

Lady Deech said: "A handful of universities are not handling complaints properly. They don't think there should be any external body handling complaints. Other universities do not appreciate the need to deal with complaints according to the principles of natural justice - that is, they do not act fairly in applying their procedures and penalties.

"For example, if a student has a dispute with a professor and then appeals against an exam result, it should not be that professor who is chairing the appeal. Very often panels do not give students enough notice or reasons for their decisions."

The OIA found that student complaints were not only on the rise, they were also becoming needlessly complex and an increasing number were invalid.

Lady Deech said this was partly because of the involvement of lawyers.

She said: "We think that there are some firms that are touting for business from students and leading them to believe they will get a lot of compensation, when this is very unlikely.

"What students really want is for their complaint to be dealt with as soon as possible. The OIA has found that a dispute is less likely to be resolved quickly when lawyers are involved.

"The availability of legal aid to students to seek judicial review of OIA decisions is of concern."

Wes Streeting, vice-president (education) of the National Union of Students, said: "There are some seriously worrying findings in the report, particularly around universities' complaints and appeals procedures.

"Students should all have the right to make a complaint about an aspect of their courses and to expect that their complaints be looked into thoroughly and according to a clear procedure. This should also be the case for appeals."

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

THE FINDINGS

The ombudsman found:

  • Complaints took an average of 21 weeks to tackle
  • Postgraduates were five times more likely to complain than undergraduates
  • Students studying subjects allied to medicine were most likely to complain, as were non-European Union students
  • Most complaints were from students under 40 but over 25.

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