Ombudsman shows caution on complaints over Covid online shift

English and Welsh ombudsman willing to admonish universities over Covid-related disruption only if they have not made effort to deliver quality online learning, case summaries reveal

November 26, 2020
online class
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The higher education ombudsman for England and Wales has indicated that universities will face penalties relating to their move to online learning only if they have not made proper efforts to ensure teaching and learning quality.

Case summaries published by the Office for the Independent Adjudicator show that while students have made complaints to the ombudsman because of the switch to online learning, the OIA will not uphold calls for refunds on that basis alone.

For example, one international student sought a refund from their provider after their course was moved online following the lockdown in March because the digital delivery was “very different to face-to-face interaction with teachers and students”.

The OIA said the complaint was “not justified” because the provider had been following national public health guidelines, had given detailed information on changes to the courses and had offered office hours that accommodated students in other time zones. It also said students had not been “disadvantaged academically” by the change.

The Westminster government has directed students who wish to make complaints about their experience because of coronavirus to the OIA, which is currently consulting on allowing students to make complaints as a group if their experiences are similar enough.

Of the 10 sample complaints, only one was upheld as “justified”, while two were “partly justified”.

The OIA said that in cases where the provider has considered the student’s concerns, “we have considered whether the provider did enough to make sure that the student was not academically disadvantaged by the disruption and could meet their learning outcomes, and whether the provider delivered what was promised and what was broadly equivalent to its usual arrangements”.

In situations where the provider had not done enough to protect students’ learning, the OIA had made recommendations, including in one case, a partial refund.

This was for a complaint from an international student that was considered to be “partly justified”. Although the OIA recognised that the provider had needed to adapt teaching, learning and assessment in order to comply with pandemic-related public health advice, the cancellation of teaching meant that only 40 per cent of the module was covered, and the dropping of a final project meant that the student lost the opportunity to develop their written work and research. The OIA ordered the university to pay about £1,000 in compensation.

In another case, a student’s complaint, which included a delay to the start of online teaching because of technical issues, was deemed to be “justified” because the provider had “not engaged with the student’s individual concerns at all”.

The OIA concluded that the institution needed to go back and consider whether it had provided something broadly equivalent to what was originally promised and whether the student had been able to access what had been offered.

Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator, said the OIA recognised that many “providers have been working incredibly hard to minimise disruption and to support students, and that students and those who support them have faced very real difficulties”.

“We are acutely aware that there are limits to what is reasonable or even possible in this context. But students must still be treated fairly,” she said.

“It is to providers’ credit that we have not so far seen any cases where the student has been directly academically disadvantaged because of the disruption, but it is also important that providers deliver what was promised or something broadly equivalent to it. Providers have done better in some cases than in others at finding ways to make up for the learning students missed out on.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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