More complaints, but fewer justified, says OIA report

Independent Adjudicator fielded 900 student complaints in 2008, but only 7 per cent of the 630 cases it closed were upheld. Rebecca Attwood reports

May 19, 2009

Nine hundred students complained about their universities to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator last year.

Figures published today show that the number of complaints received by the OIA in 2008 was up 23 per cent on the previous year, continuing a trend of year-on-year rises.

Eighty-two per cent of complaints were eligible for the OIA to review, and during the year it closed 630 cases. Of these, 7 per cent were judged to be “justified” and 16 per cent “partly justified”.

The OIA said the figures represented a tiny proportion of the 1.9 million students studying in higher education institutions in England and Wales, but it noted that it handles complaints only once students have exhausted their universities’ internal complaint procedures.

Rob Behrens, the Independent Adjudicator, said: “Universities should be encouraged by the relatively small number of complaints found [to be] justified. There is much good and sensitive work done in universities to address student complaints and a cadre of professional and dedicated staff to deal with them.”

However, he added that there was no room for complacency.

“In the course of the year, I have come across a small number of universities insufficiently resourced for effective complaints handling and unacceptable examples of serious delay in addressing formal complaints. There are also examples of insensitive handling and of universities failing to abide by their own regulations.”

The OIA’s annual report – the first to be published since Mr Behrens succeeded Baroness Deech in May 2008 – describes universities’ plagiarism practices as “variable”.

While many have proactive policies in place to educate students about the dangers of plagiarism from the beginning of their courses, some do not, it adds.

“In a small number of cases, students have been denied natural justice through conflicts of interest in [the] overlapping membership of misconduct and appeals panels,” the report says.

“There is also evidence of some students being denied the opportunity to put their case in person, or being required to ‘prove’ their innocence when universities have a responsibility to demonstrate that the case is proven.”

Sanctions, it adds, are sometimes disproportionate.

The OIA said it had reviewed a number of cases where there had been a clear reluctance to give timely feedback to underperforming postgraduate students.

“This creates false expectations of successful outcomes from thesis submission and is something that could be avoided. There are also failures by supervisors to keep appropriate minimum records of supervision meetings with students, a practice that impedes the review of complaints handling,” it says.

The report adds that a number of universities needed to develop their understanding of disability legislation.

Most complaints related to academic matters – issues outside “academic judgment” but related to academic appeals, the handling of mitigating circumstances and misconduct.

The highest number of complaints came from students on business and administrative studies courses, followed by medicine and law.

To some extent, this reflects the numbers enrolled on such courses, but the fact that these students must fulfil “fitness to practise” requirements if they are to pursue vocational careers is another explanation.

Thirty-nine per cent of complaints came from postgraduate students.

The OIA awarded £93,535 in compensation during 2008 and reduced the average number of days it took to deal with eligible complaints from 171 days to 142 days.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “The rise in the number of complaints to the OIA highlights, once more, the increased awareness of this complaints procedure. The OIA plays a vital role in the higher education sector and is clearly fulfilling its role.

“The 900 or so complaints received must be seen in the context of the 1.9 million students in England and Wales covered by the scheme, and also the fact that only 7 per cent were justified. As a percentage, this represents a drop on the equivalent figures for 2007.

“But we are not complacent, this is 900 complaints too many. Universities seek to learn from complaints and will look carefully at the areas where the report recommends room for improvement. In addition, universities are responding to the results of the National Student Survey, along with their own surveys, to improve provision.”

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

Case studies

Outcome: justified

Summary of case: S was on a three-year degree course for which each set of assessments counted to the overall degree classification. In the first year 2004-05, he and the majority of the cohort complained about the quality of the teaching on one module. The university assured the students that this would be considered at the examination board. Nothing further was communicated to the students.

In his final year, S was on the borderline for a 2.2/2.1 degree and was invited to a viva. S attended the viva, but it was not conducted in line with the published procedures. S was awarded a 2.2.

S submitted an academic appeal about the degree classification, which was rejected by the university.

Reasons: The OIA found that the complaints about the academic year 2004-05 had not been investigated punctually and appropriately. It also found that the viva procedures had not been followed and that this had disadvantaged S. There were also delays throughout the university’s procedures, and these continued during the OIA’s review in the provision of responses by the institution.

Recommendations:

• The university should offer £3,500 for the detrimental effects on S because of its mistakes and delays.

Outcome: not justified

Summary of case: S suffered from an eating disorder, which he attempted to overcome in his second and third years at university.

He was registered on a combined degree that encompassed modules provided by different departments. His yearly results therefore had to be considered by the exam boards of two departments before they were finally determined by the exam board for his course.

In his second and third years, S submitted a mitigating circumstances claim to the two departments detailing the effects of his illness on his academic performance. Contrary to procedure, he did not send the claim to his course department. His course exam board asked the other two departments to forward a copy of the claims to it. This did not happen.

S also suffered two panic attacks in one of his final exams, causing him to leave the room each time. However, he did not include this in his claim.

S was awarded a third-class degree, against which he appealed on the basis that his claims did not reflect the difficulties of his illness; he also mentioned the panic attacks.

The appeal was upheld because the course exam board did not receive the mitigating circumstances claims from the other two departments, and was referred back to it for reconsideration. The exam board reconsidered the case but did not change S’ marks. It found that he had not raised the panic attacks in his mitigating circumstances claim, contrary to procedures; there was no supporting medical evidence; and there was no clear evidence of work at a lower second-degree level.

S escalated the appeal on the basis that the exam board did not take into account his panic attacks in the one exam that he thought was pivotal to obtaining a higher degree class. The appeal committee reviewed the invigilators’ report for the exam in question and found no reported incidents of panic attacks. It also found that there was no procedural irregularity in the exam board’s reconsideration of the results. It therefore rejected the appeal.

Reasons: The OIA did not uphold this complaint. Although the OIA was critical of the university for some aspects of the course exam board’s reconsideration of the case, it found that there was no procedural irregularity and that the reasons given for not awarding a higher degree were reasonable in the circumstances and in line with the procedures.

The OIA also looked at the second appeal and found that there was no procedural irregularity. It found that in the absence of medical evidence from S, it was reasonable for the university to rely on its own evidence that there were no reported panic attacks in the exam.

Outcome: justified

Summary of case: S was on a three-year degree course with a second-year exchange scheme organised by the university. It threatened to deregister S while he was abroad as it had recorded his status incorrectly at the academic registry. S contacted the university and attempted to update his record. Unfortunately, due to the university’s mistakes, he could not enrol on the third-year modules he wished to specialise in, or the dissertation for which he had already begun his research.

S complained to the university throughout the final academic year and in particular after he achieved a 2.1 overall in his third year. S’ profile had indicated that he was a first-class student at the end of his second year.

S appealed on the basis of the disadvantages that he suffered throughout the third year, studying subjects that he had not chosen. The university investigated the case and identified that there had been failings on its part, but did not offer a remedy to S. There were delays throughout the university’s investigations and subsequent significant delays in the provision of documentation once the case was referred to the OIA.

Reasons: The OIA found that there had been maladministration that had affected S and that while the university had acknowledged this point, it had not offered a remedy. There were also delays throughout the university’s procedures, and these continued during the OIA’s review in the provision of responses by the university.

Recommendations:

• The university should offer to pay S £5,000 for the detrimental effects of its mistakes and delays.

• S and the university should agree a reference, which acknowledged that due to the latter’s maladministration, S had not received the support that he should have expected in his second and third years.

• The university should review its administrative procedures for the year abroad and its complaints system, and should report back to the OIA once this had been completed.

Outcome: partly justified

Summary of case: S was studying for a PhD. She had had a sexual relationship with her supervisor, the nature of which was disputed, but which the supervisor alleged was consensual. The supervisor did not declare the relationship, contrary to the university’s policy on consensual relationships.

After the relationship had ended, S accused the supervisor of poor supervision, bullying and harassment, and of passing off her work as his own. There were delays in the institution’s investigation of the complaint. It identified some procedural shortcomings, but did not uphold the substantive complaints of bullying and academic piracy. It offered compensation for the procedural shortcomings and delays in the investigation.

Reasons: The institution had failed to keep adequate records of supervision. It ought to have taken early action to change the supervision arrangements. It discouraged S from bringing her complaint and delayed its investigations.

Recommendations:

• Support S in her efforts to continue with her PhD at another institution.

• Pay compensation of £8,000 in respect of her lost opportunity to complete the PhD at the university.

• Pay compensation of £1,500 for the distress caused by the serious delays identified.

Outcome: partly justified

Summary of case: S wished to enrol on an MSc course and accepted an offer on the basis that he first took a preliminary stage. That stage required him to pass the first three units at the first attempt before he could progress to the rest of the course. He failed one of the first three units and sought advice as to whether he could write off his first attempt and get back on track for the MSc. He was then wrongly advised that he could retake the failed unit at a later date. He subsequently paid for and took further units.

He was advised a year later that he could not obtain the MSc because he had failed in his first attempt at one of the first three units. He complained informally to his department, but received no response, despite chasing the matter for eight months. Four months later, he submitted a formal complaint to the university.

It accepted that it had failed to address his informal complaint and offered him the chance to progress on the course. However, S and the university could not reach agreement over the timetable. S complained to the OIA that the implications of the preliminary stage had not been explained to him, that incorrect advice had led him to pay for further units unnecessarily and that the university had inadequately dealt with his complaint.

Reasons: S was adequately advised about the preliminary stage, but given bad advice that led to him purchasing further units. His complaint was not dealt with properly.

Recommendations:

• Compensation of £3,750, including an amount to account for the units S had paid for unnecessarily on the basis of the university’s inaccurate advice.

• The university to review staff training in relation to its complaints procedures.

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