University ombudsman set to allow group complaints from students

Office for the Independent Adjudicator proposes new system as it expects high volume of grievances relating to Covid-19 disruption

November 5, 2020
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Students who have similar grievances against their university would be allowed to complain as a group, under proposals published by the higher education ombudsman for England and Wales.

The Office for the Independent Adjudicator has published a consultation document that outlines how allowing “large group complaints” from students whose issues have “a high degree of commonality” would allow it to provide a more effective service.

It would also be appropriate in situations where within a larger group, complaints could be divided into a small number of subgroups if students have been affected in slightly different ways.

According to the OIA, recent events affecting the higher education sector have the potential to lead to large numbers of complaints, including Covid-19 and the unprecedented disruption it is causing to teaching.

Some students and commentators have said that students should be entitled to refunds because of the disruption caused by the pandemic and the switch to online teaching.

In a letter sent to students regarding the new national lockdown, Michelle Donelan, England’s universities minister, advised students who have made, or plan to make, complaints about the quality of tuition they have received to refer the matter to the OIA.

Currently students make complaints to their university and go through its internal process before they can be taken up with the OIA, if the student feels that their university has not handled the complaint effectively.

Rather than focusing on individual aspects, the OIA said that it had developed “a bespoke approach to handling complaints from large groups of students”.

If it becomes apparent that a provider has had a large number of complaints about one issue but a solution can not be reached internally, the OIA said that the university should come to it.

Under the new proposals, not all students involved in the large group complaint would have had to made a complaint to the provider or completed the university’s internal process. “We hope that, as well as making the process more straightforward for the students involved, this would be easier for the provider than taking large numbers of complaints through its internal processes,” according to the consultation document.

Usually students have 12 months from completing their university’s internal process to decide to go to the OIA, but this deadline may be shortened for group complaints in order for them to review and coordinate “in a timely way”.

The students would also have a collective opportunity to share their views with the OIA, for example through an online discussion session, as part of the process.

The OIA admitted that this approach would give individuals less opportunity to express their unique concerns and to challenge decisions, but they believe that in certain circumstances “this is outweighed by the benefit of being able to get large numbers of students a fair outcome to their complaint”.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, welcomed the proposals. “Students exist in a marketised system that disempowers us at every stage: whether by prioritising our fee and rent income over safety, or by forcing us to only ever seek individual compensation for our collective misfortune,” she said.

“Being able to make complaints collectively will stand to empower students in the face of this.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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