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Student complaints in England and Wales are at record highs, a watchdog reports

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

University students made a record number of complaints last year to the higher education watchdog in England and Wales, which expressed concern about “increasing levels of distress among students who are struggling to cope”.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received 2,850 complaints in 2022 – its highest ever number and a 3% increase on the previous year – which resulted in financial compensation of more than £1m in total.

The OIA hears appeals from students only if they have exhausted their institution’s internal procedures and are still dissatisfied. According to its annual report for 2022, 25% of complaints were justified, partly justified, or settled in favour of the student.

The watchdog reported a big jump in the proportion of complaints about academic appeals of assessments and grades, up from 29% in 2021 to 38% in 2022, while complaints about teaching, course delivery and supervision fell from 45% to 38%.

“This rebalancing of our caseload is likely to reflect the end of the ‘no detriment’ or safety-net policies that had been in place during the pandemic and had resulted in fewer appeals, as well as the reduction through the year in the number of complaints related to Covid-19 disruption,” the OIA said.

The watchdog did, however, conclude its handling of complaints from a group of more than 400 arts students at a single provider about disruption caused by Covid, which were found to be partly justified. In total, the students received about £640,000 in compensation, but the details do not form part of the overall 2022 data.

Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator, said it had been another difficult year for students and universities, with the cost of living crisis and strikes. “We are seeing increasing levels of distress among students who are struggling to cope, and this is a major concern. At the same time the pressures on providers make it more difficult for them to support students effectively.”

One example was of a student on a healthcare course who had a mental health condition that meant they were unable to start their second placement on time. The student has since dropped out and was awarded a partial refund of tuition fees and compensation after the university failed to support them adequately.

The OIA also recommended compensation to a group of students on a distance learning course who complained the course did not live up to their expectations, based on the marketing materials. It also reported an increase in complaints relating to harassment and sexual misconduct, though numbers remained small.

Chloe Field, the vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: “Students are at breaking point, with the cost of living crisis and spiralling rents pushing many over the edge. It is no surprise the OIA has received a record number of complaints.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Whilst complaints have increased, it is good to see that the OIA is working to resolve these issues, ensuring that more complaints were closed than ever before in the last year.”

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