The bigger the bill, the greater the gripes

August 17, 2007

Those who invested heavily in their education, including postgraduate and foreign students, are lodging the most complaints. Rebecca Attwood reports

An undergraduate expelled for a first offence of plagiarism and a postgraduate who received only 5 per cent of the tuition that had been promised were among the 88 students who had their complaints upheld by the student ombudsman last year.

Figures released this week reveal a 44 per cent increase in the number of eligible complaints in the Office of the Independent Adjudicator's second full year.

More than 1,000 decisions have been issued since the office was established in 2004. In 2006, 381 cases were closed, each case taking an average of six months, and per cent of complaints were found to be justified to some extent.

The OIA said the increase in the number of complaints in 2006 did not appear to stem from changing attitudes brought about by the higher student tuition fees introduced that year, but warned that a rise could yet be possible.

Instead, Baroness Deech, head of the OIA, said complaints had gone up gradually and the 44 per cent figure was mainly because of time-lag. She told The Times Higher: "We don't seem to have seen complaints rising suddenly because there has been a sharp upturn in the level of fees being charged - but the higher fees only came into being last year so it is too early to judge."

The UK is unique in the world in having an independent, stand-alone student complaints system.

Most complaints last year came from students studying subjects allied to medicine, business and administrative studies and law. Some 66 per cent of complainants were mature students aged over 24.

Many complaints were from those who had invested heavily in their education - 39 per cent were postgraduates - and complaints from non-EU students continue to be proportionately higher than their presence in the student body.

On the up were complaints from students claiming they deserved a higher mark because of mitigating circumstances - but Lady Deech said most of these were found to be unjustified because in many cases the complaints were raised months after the exams or work had been completed. The OIA, like the courts, is also unable to take on matters that relate purely to academic judgment.

Meanwhile, half of complainants who disclosed disabilities had dyslexia and some difficult cases arose from students who were diagnosed only at the very end of their courses.

"I think the lesson there is that people who think they might be affected should get diagnosed as early as possible," Lady Deech said.

Universities also need to review their "fitness to practice" procedures - determining what happens if a student doing a professional course, such as medicine, nursing, teaching or law, falls foul of the rules that the profession requires.

"We found one or two cases where universities didn't apply all the rules of procedural fairness to the fitness-to-practice hearings. A student's whole career might be at stake if they are found unfit to practice.

"Universities need to make students aware of these rules right at the start of their course," Lady Deech said.

She believes that universities are becoming more expert at handling complaints and at being consistent in cases of plagiarism.

The OIA has noticed that, at a few universities, penalties seemed to be more severe than was general in the sector. Lady Deech said: "Universities are moving to be more consistent in how they tackle plagiarism. We're finding more cases where they are looking more carefully at a whole tariff of penalties.

"I think the issue of handling complaints has moved up the list of priorities for universities," she said.

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

OIA CASES

A postgraduate was awarded £4,500 after his one-year course finished six months late. The university admitted that 95 per cent of the promised tuition was not given. The student rejected an offer of a refund of 25 per cent of his course fees. The OIA awarded him a 75 per cent fees refund, a 50 per cent refund of a student loan he had been forced to take out because of the delayed course, and £500 in compensation.

* A student who withdrew from her PhD programme after seven years of fruitless study won £1,000 in compensation - even though the OIA found that the supervision she complained about was adequate and she "was at fault in having written almost nothing and taking no steps to ensure that her difficulties were being addressed". The supervisor, the OIA found, should have been more critical of her lack of progress and the need for numerous extensions for the work should have been questioned.

* A student expelled after being found guilty of plagiarism had the expulsion lifted after the OIA ruled that the university's procedures for dealing with the matter had been inadequate.

The ombudsman said: "The extent of the plagiarism should have been taken into account and a full range of penalties considered, not just expulsion. The OIA condemns plagiarism but its view is that the degree of culpability can vary significantly depending on the extent of the plagiarism." The university was ordered to review its procedures.

* A student was awarded £150 in compensation for "maladministration" by her university, after it changed the criteria for calculating students' degree classifications.

The change of system left the student with a lower second degree instead of the upper second she would have received under the old system, where only her better pieces of work would have been counted.

The university was perfectly entitled to change the rules but it was fined for wrongly informing students that the changes would not disadvantage anyone.

* The president of the student union at one university won £750 in compensation after she was wrongly suspended and disciplined for inviting members of an extremist organisation to visit the campus.

The university's vice-chancellor had ordered her to cancel the meeting, but she refused on the grounds of free speech. The ombudsman found that the university had failed in its duties to ensure that freedom of speech within the law was upheld.

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