In this guide we share the 10 most common student complaints received by universities, as well as to the OIA. The latest OIA complaints data refers to 2019, with the full 2020 breakdown expected in spring 2021.
2020 marked a record year for student complaints with industrial action and the impact of Covid-19 leading to major changes to university provision and course delivery. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) reported a record level of complaints across 2020, with 2,604 student complaints registered.
Here are the top 10 most common complaints being faced by universities:
The largest level of complaints facing universities is with regards to academic appeals and the outcomes emerging from courses. Evidently for students their degree classification, module results and the ability to be assessed fairly and robustly are at the top of the agenda.
This complaint type can include accounts of assessment being conducted unfairly or for outcomes to not effectively reflect student performance. The OIA points out that the vast majority of academic appeals relate to special considerations as part of assessment processes.
The Impact of Covid-19
Whilst official statistics are yet to be released on the type of complaints in relation to Covid-19 it is expected that the significant growth of complaint levels are in relation to the impact of the pandemic. It is estimated that the OIA received 300 formal complaints on Covid-19 disruption in 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in major concerns over service provision, inadequate online teaching and a diminished university experience. The crisis has triggered major questions over value for money, with numerous student bodies seeking tuition fee or accommodation refunds. The crisis has also resulted in the emergence of large group complaints in relation to shared experiences in service provision.
Service disruption as a result of industrial action has been a major challenge for institutions in recent years. The primary cause of complaints is driven by lost learning or course provision. The OIA has found that some courses had failed to mitigate for missing content and that in some instances alternative arrangements had not been accessible to all students. In these cases the OIA did call for partial tuition fee refunds where providers had failed to adequately address lost learning.
Ineffective service delivery has caused a significant growth in complaint levels, particularly in relation to service disruption causes by industrial action or the impact of Covid-19. These complaints relate to the quality of provision which could include facilities, teaching delivery or wider student services offered by an institution.
Cases where a student has been disadvantaged as a result of poor service delivery or where services failed to meet what was expected have been a major growth area. In these cases, institutions should expect that complaints will no longer simply relate to course delivery, but institution-wide provision.
Universities have also reported a number of financial complaints from students. These are cases in which students feel funding rules or financial support packages have been incorrectly allocated or rules have been inconsistently applied. In many cases these complaints relate to how tuition fees have been charged based on changed or mitigating circumstances which could include changed immigration status or moving from a full time to part-time course.
Financial complaints have also related to how funding is distributed for those facing financial hardship or needing to access additional university funds. In these cases close and consistent financial practice is essential, as well as effective communication and transparency over how institutions act in line with financial procedures.
The OIA distinguishes between disciplinary cases relating to academic matters and disciplinary cases relating to non-academic matters. These cases are often around students feeling that disciplinary procedures have been conducted unfairly, disproportionately or failing to act in line with institutional standards.
Academic disciplinary procedures often relate to issues of academic integrity, plagiarism or misconduct within a course. Whilst non-academic disciplinary procedures relate to issues in which student’s behaviour to staff or fellow students fail to meet expected standards.
For institutions robust and transparent disciplinary procedures are essential in ensuring that any disciplinary action will hold under scrutiny.
Fitness to Practice
A number of complaints facing institutions concern decisions made over a student’s fitness to practice within a course or particular profession. These decisions relate to whether a student’s skills, health, character and abilities allow them to engage with a particular profession. Such decisions are made largely within certain types of courses including healthcare, law, social work or medicine.
Decisions where institutions determine a student is not fit to practice can have major ramifications for students, resulting in them being unable to participate in the course and even engage in that profession for the rest of their life. As such, these decisions must be taken very carefully and in line with the expectations of the OIA and regulatory bodies. Poor or infective decision making in these cases can trigger complaints from students where they feel standards and processes have not be successfully upheld.
Sexual Harassment or Misconduct
Institutions are experiencing growing levels of complaints in relation to sexual harassment or misconduct. The vast majority of these cases relates to misconduct between students. However, there are cases that also involve university staff. Of all the case received by the OIA, more are upheld within this category than any other. In many cases these complaints relate to a university managing poor processes for investigating accusations and for not showing clear transparency and reasoning when decisions are made on accused students.
Many of these cases relate to how providers communicated with students, how investigations were conducted and the support offered for victims in such instances.
It should be highlighted that whilst overall complaint levels are low, universities should promote a culture and system in which students feel able to report and escalate cases of sexual harassment or misconduct.
Equality, Disability and Access
Disabled students account for over 1 in 5 of all complaints escalated to the OIA revealing significant challenges over inclusion. Complaints in this field relate to inadequacies over reasonable adjustments and concerns that providers have not effectively supported a fully inclusive environment for those with access needs.
For providers the needs to communicate effectively with students with access needs and ensure service delivery responds in an efficient manner are critical in ensuring a high quality student experience for all.
The issue of value for money and consumer rights is becoming of greater importance, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many students call for tuition fee refunds or financial compensation within their complaints, feeling that the services delivered to them do not match what they have paid for. Whilst this may not feature as a core complaints category, it is a growing cause of discontent amongst students when provision has not matched what has been advertised or promised. For institutions questions of delivering value for money and ensuring expectations are managed are going to become increasingly important in managing complaints.
Evidently institutions are facing an evolving landscape in complaints and the challenges around the Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated existing trends. Yet, it is clear that effective communication, clear processes and procedures, transparency over the handling of complaints and an ability for institutions to admit when mistakes are made are critical. For institutions the ability to learn from emerging complaints and ensure their handling of complaints improves is essential to ensure satisfactory outcomes for students submitting a complaint.
Improving the Student Experience Handbook
Student wellbeing, participation, attainment and retention all combine to make a complete university experience. However, making all of these aspects work at institutions around the UK can be a challenge for higher education workers.
That's why we've put together a Guide to Improving Student Experience in Higher Education, covering guidelines on creating an effective student experience strategy and improving student support and retention methods.
If you’re interested in your own copy of the guide, click the link below.