Record number of student complaints to University Watchdog, here’s why

It is no secret that over the last year and a half, students have felt ignored, belittled, and angry. Between mass strikes at the end of 2019/start of 2020, and then online teaching pretty much ever since, a lot of students feel that they’ve had more of their degree off-campus than on. Those who started university this year haven’t been able to celebrate Freshers, those graduating are unsure whether they’ll have a graduation ceremony, or, like last year, it’ll be on Zoom.

All of this anger and confusion has amounted in a record number of complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, a major university watchdog. In 2020, the OIA received 2604 complaints, a 10% increase from 2019. This may be an incomplete number too, as complaints to the OIA are often delayed due to the long process it takes to lodge a complaint.

complaints
Source: Gonzobanker

What were the complaints about?

300 of the complaints, approximately 12%, were related to the pandemic. Most of these, according to the OIA, come from international students. This is unsurprising considering many international students who went home are unable to return to university and are struggling to keep up with online lectures in different time zones.

A further 31% of complaints were made about service issues generally, including quality of teaching, course content, timetabling, etc.

online lecture
Source: Times Higher Education

There was also a rise in sexual harassment complaints, which follows a trend of rising complaints over the last few years. However, OIA has said the number is still small, despite awareness being spread this year of the alleged ‘rape culture’ at universities.

One anonymised case saw the OIA rule in favour of a student, causing the university to pay out £5,000 to said student after failing to inform them of the outcome of an investigation. The investigation, started by a student complaint, was into a supervisor at the university who was offering high grades for sex.

How were the complaints responded to?

The OIA ruled in favour of the student in 1/4 of the complaints, which is more than previous years. This is because of the acknowledgement that “2020 was an exceptionally challenging year for everyone who studies or works in higher education”, according to Felicity Mitchell from the OIA.

This many rules in favour of the students led to a total payout from universities of £742,132. Whilst this seems to suggest that teaching standards have faltered this year, the OIA reiterated that they cannot comment on the standard of teaching. Instead, they can evaluate the adequacy of support and equipment provided to students.

For example, one student’s complaint led to them being compensated for missing out on a small group teaching during the strikes. The university replaced the group with an online taught element, but the OIA ruled that the discussion and debate provided by in-person teaching was necessary for the course.

Can you complain to OIA?

office of the independent adjudicator
Source: University of Sheffield

If you want to complain to the OIA, you need to fill the following criteria.

  • You must be a registered student at a higher education provider
  • That provider must be a member of the OIA scheme

The complaint can by about academic appeals, accommodation, bullying, disciplinary matters, discrimination, extenuating circumstances, fitness to practise processes, placements, procedural irregularities, research supervision, teaching provision and facilities, unfair practices, or welfare.

It cannot be about admissions, academic judgement, student employment, anything that has gone to court or already been evaluated by another adjudicating body.

Before lodging a complaint with the OIA, you should complete the complaints process or appeal process within your university. Occasionally, however, the OIA will look at complaints that have not gone through this channel first.

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