Student complaint results will identify institutions

Universities fear publication will create league tables of grievances. Rebecca Attwood reports

February 11, 2010

The student complaints body for England and Wales has decided to publish the outcomes of its adjudications, naming the universities involved.

A report published by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education on 11 February also reveals that private universities will be invited to join the scheme.

It follows a review of the organisation, which receives 900 complaints a year from students who have exhausted their universities' internal procedures.

Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator, said the review, which involved a consultation with the sector and a survey of complainants, found the scheme was working well.

"There is acknowledgement of its independence and effectiveness and of the high quality of its formal decisions as an alternative to costly litigation," he said. He added that none of the 20 attempts made to date to force a judicial review of OIA decisions had been successful.

However, the review concluded that there were ways in which the OIA could improve; The Pathway Report sets out 28 recommendations. There was a need to "address the concerns of complainants, not all of whom share the view that we are independent," Mr Behrens said, and to do more to communicate the OIA's role and function to students.

Almost 60 per cent of complainants thought their university was not properly held to account by the OIA, while almost half thought the ombudsman was "on the side" of the university. But 77 per cent of those whose cases were upheld thought it was independent.

The survey identified a common misconception among complainants that universities failed to comply with the OIA's recommendations.

Students were also strongly dissatisfied with the remedies awarded by the OIA and felt compensation payments were too small. The organisation will now review this area.

The consultation found that universities saw the OIA as an independent body, but also that they thought it was too bureaucratic.

One said there was a "risk that the OIA's very existence is contributing to a culture of complaint". The time taken to resolve complaints was also seen as a weakness.

On the issue of publishing decisions about individual universities, the majority of complainants were in favour. However, 55 universities opposed the idea, fearing it would damage their reputations and lead to league tables about complaints.

Other concerns were that it would create "a new, adversarial relationship" between universities and the OIA, and that it "smacks of 'naming and shaming'".

But Mr Behrens said there could be "reputational damage" to a system that did not routinely publish findings, and that the OIA was out of line with comparable schemes.

There will now be consultation on two options. The first would publish summaries of complaints found to be "justified" or "partly justified", which would identify the university but not the individuals involved.

The second would see the number of "justified", "partly justified" and "not justified" decisions for each university published annually, along with the total number of complaints and appeals received and heard by each university.

The full report is at

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