Student complaints rise, but fewer are justified

The overseeing body warns of further increases to cases of grievance as the student experience and fees remain high on the agenda. Rebecca Attwood reports

June 15, 2010

The student complaints body is now handling more than 1,000 cases a year, the organisation revealed today.

Complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator – which takes on complaints only once a student has exhausted their university’s internal procedures – were up 12 per cent in 2009.

Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator and chief executive of the OIA, said: “The number of complaints received continues to rise year on year.

“Given that the student experience and the level of student fees remain vital issues, the number of complaints received is very likely to continue to grow.”

However, Mr Behrens pointed out that despite the increase, the number was equal to just 0.05 per cent of higher education enrolments in England and Wales last year.

Out of the 1,007 complaints received, 811 were found to be eligible for review under OIA rules. The proportion of complaints found to be justified was small – 5 per cent – and lower than the previous year (7 per cent).

Thirteen per cent were found to be partly justified, and 75 per cent not justified.

Mr Behrens said this suggested an improvement in case handling by universities, but warned that there was no room for complacency.

He identified several areas where universities needed to improve.

A recent OIA study found that a large majority of complainants were not convinced that their university had dealt with their case within a reasonable timeframe, taken their complaint seriously or given them a fair hearing.

“There is more work to be done by universities here. Students’ unions are often left out of the loop in debriefing OIA decisions and there needs to be a more inclusive approach,” Mr Behrens said.

In addition, when complaints were found to be justified or partly justified, this was often the result of a university’s failure to follow its own procedures, he said.

Universities also need to be more “joined-up” when working with external bodies, Mr Behrens suggested, and there were also instances of universities taking too long to comply with the OIA’s decisions.

The OIA’s annual report reveals that the highest-ever compensation – a total of £45,000 – was awarded to a complainant, a PhD candidate, in 2009.

It followed a battle between the student and her university during which she spent more than £30,000 on legal representation.

“The level of formality inherent in the procedures which the university chose to operate … which included ‘court’ hearings conducted by senior lawyers, encouraged students to seek legal representation,” the report says.

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