'This is not a gentlemen's club': OIA names and shames recalcitrant duo

As complaints rise, watchdog publishes cases of non-compliance by institutions. Simon Baker writes

June 16, 2011

Credit: Paul Rapson/Alamy
Lecture notes: The OIA has told universities that students must have justice

The student-complaints watchdog has for the first time named two universities for failing to comply with its rulings as it saw its caseload jump by a record amount last year.

The universities of Southampton and Westminster were too slow to respond to recommendations made by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator after it upheld complaints by students - and needed interventions from their respective vice-chancellors to rectify the situations, according to the OIA's annual report.

No university had previously failed to comply with rulings from the OIA, which also reported a 33 per cent increase in complaints in 2010 to 1,341.

The proportion of complaints upheld in full or in part also rose from 14 to 20 per cent, reversing a downward trend in the past few years.

According to the report, published this week, Southampton displayed a "stated reluctance" to comply with one OIA decision for four months.

Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator, told Times Higher Education that the "helpful intervention" of Southampton's vice-chancellor, Don Nutbeam, eventually resolved the dispute - details of which have not been revealed.

"The university made it clear to the student that it did not agree with the decision and at that point I wrote to the vice-chancellor to express my concern," Mr Behrens said.

"Once the vice-chancellor intervened, the university willingly complied."

In a separate case, Southampton failed to confirm it had abided by a ruling "despite repeated requests" to do so and in a third matter was slow to respond to requests for evidence.

The university has since fulfilled the OIA's wishes and has launched a review of how it handles student complaints, which Debra Humphris, pro vice-chancellor for education, said would lead to recommendations being adopted by the autumn.

In Westminster's case, the report says there was "significant delay in implementing and demonstrating implementation of recommendations during 2010 and early 2011".

In one case, it failed to prove it had reviewed "the mitigating circumstances of a disabled student" and in another did not show that it had carried out an independent review of a contested examination question and its marking scheme.

Mr Behrens said he was now "content" that the university was taking steps to comply.

Geoff Petts, Westminster's vice-chancellor, said the institution was "disappointed" to have been cited and had been working to meet the OIA's recommendations before a further meeting "provided clarification of the additional action required".

Referring to the unprecedented move to name two institutions for non-compliance, Mr Behrens said: "This is not a gentlemen's club: there has to be discipline by universities in complying with issues that relate to the student experience and our job is to make sure that students get that justice."

From next year, the OIA will begin to name universities alongside summaries of its decisions, a move that will bring it in line with the system in Scotland.

On the rise in complaints, Mr Behrens warned that it did put "great pressure" on the OIA, which will consult later this year on whether to partly base its charges to universities on the number of grievances they generate.


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