Over 10 per cent of students who exhaust their university's internal complaints procedures go on to take their grievance to the complaints watchdog, according to new figures.
Once a university has completed its internal complaints procedures, it must send the student a "completion of procedures letter" (CPL) setting out its decision, whether or not it has found in the student's favour. Only when a CPL is issued can a student's complaint be taken to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
A total of 2,253 CPLs were issued in 2007 by the 48 higher education institutions that responded to a survey by Andrew Johnson, from Walker Morris solicitors, and Karen Stephenson, university secretary at London South Bank University. The average number issued by each institution was 47, up from 29 the previous year. Of the 2,253 complaints, 267 were taken on to the OIA, and of these, 45 - or 2 per cent of the total - were upheld in whole or in part. The OIA upheld complaints in 24 per cent of cases, down from 34 per cent the previous year.
The figures also show wide variation in the number of CPLs issued by institutions, ranging from none to 265. Among universities with more than 15,000 students, the average number was 87. In medium-sized institutions, it was 50, and in institutions with fewer than 5,000 students it was 2.5.
Five large universities said they had issued five or fewer CPLs during the entire year.
"It might be that some institutions never have complaints from their students. Perhaps it is more likely that they are not interpreting regulations in the same way," Mr Johnson said.
The survey also asked universities to rate the performance of the OIA. Fifty-two per cent of respondents said its performance was the same compared with last year, 15 per cent thought it had improved and 6 per cent thought it was worse.
Positive comments about the OIA included that it was a "useful reality check" for complainants, was "very effective", and treated universities "fairly and objectively".
Critics said the OIA's approach "encourages students to pursue ill-founded complaints and to expect financial compensation" and could be "slow and laborious". "A high turnover of staff" was also noted.
In its last annual report, the OIA said it received a total of 600 eligible complaints from across the sector in 2007, and that 26 per cent of complaints were upheld to some extent.
Rob Behrens, the Independent Adjudicator, said the research was interesting and would feed into a consultation on the OIA's future direction.
"Although nationally the number of complaints is rising, we are undertaking independent research to find out more about why there is a variable rate of complaints from universities of a similar size," Mr Behrens said.
"In addition, and helpfully, recent court decisions are making it clear to students that they shouldn't bypass the OIA, and that providing our decisions are reasonable, they will respect them. This is an important reassurance for universities and students."