Overseas student complaints to England and Wales ombudsman surge

Tightening visa restrictions, language barriers and cultural misunderstanding have contributed to soaring numbers of complaints to OIA

May 15, 2024
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A sharp rise in complaints from non-European Union students has pushed the number of grievances received by England and Wales’ higher education ombudsman to an all-time high.

In its latest annual report, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) reveals it received 3,137 new complaints in 2023, up by 10 per cent from 2022 when 2,850 complaints were made.

That was mostly driven by a 43 per cent rise in complaints from international students from outside the EU, with the tally topping 1,100 in 2023 compared with just under 800 in 2022.

This trend “at least in part reflects the changing number of non-EU students…in the student population”, explains the report, published on 15 May.

More than half the complaints from international students – which represent 36 per cent of all complaints, up from 27 per cent in 2022 – related to academic appeals, it adds.

“For international students there is often substantial personal and financial investment involved in coming to study in the UK, and sometimes sponsorship arrangements, leading to a possible greater sense of pressure to ‘succeed’ in their studies,” it explains.

“It can also be more difficult for international students to make use of options such as taking time out from their studies if they are experiencing difficulties, and some options may not be available to them due to visa requirements,” it continues, noting a “tightening of visa restrictions” in recent years.

In one complaint highlighted by the report, an international student who had passed some modules but failed others was told they could only progress if they resat the assessment the following year.

Given they would not be repeating the classes, the university asked the student to return to their country in line with visa requirements and rejected their appeal to learn part-time.

Because the student had given up their home in their home country, they had struggled to relocate their family again and, after mitigation on grounds of mental health difficulties was rejected, appealed to the OIA. Their complaint was, however, deemed not justified by the OIA, which found the university had no option but to comply with visa rules.

According to the report, the issues raised in academic appeal complaints from international students were “quite similar to those from home students, mainly around requests for additional consideration due to personal circumstances including late submission of requests”.

However, understanding and adapting to academic expectations in UK higher education “can be difficult for international students”, says the OIA report, which highlights the case of an international student who had memorised a large chunk of text and written it down in a closed-book exam.  

After being given a zero mark, the student complained to the OIA, saying they had used this method with success in their home country. Their complaint was, however, rejected because the university had made it clear that students should use their own words in the exam.

In another case – this time settled in favour of an international student whose studies had been terminated on the basis of non-attendance – the OIA found the student was justified after raising concerns about an allegedly faulty student card.

Overall, the OIA closed 3,352 cases in 2023, 19 per cent more than in 2022 (2,821), with 21 per cent of cases deemed justified, 7 per cent partly justified and 12 per cent settled in favour of the student.

In addition to practical remedies, the OIA also recommended financial remedies totalling £580,311, with the highest settlement reaching £42,500. Some 58 students received amounts of £5,000 or more, of whom 24 received £10,000 or more.

Ben Elger, the OIA’s chief executive, described 2023 as a “complex and challenging year” with complaints in a “rising caseload” touching on a number of issues, including free speech and mental health.


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