Felicity Mitchell reflects on pandemic-related complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator
Since the start of the first national lockdown a year ago, students and higher education providers have faced enormous challenges. Inevitably, some of those challenges have been reflected in complaints to us at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
This year, over half of the complaints we have received have related to the impact of the coronavirus. It often takes some time for complaints to reach us because students must first go through the internal processes at their higher education provider. They then have 12 months to complain to us. The impact of the pandemic is pervasive and as time goes on, separating out complaints that are about coronavirus disruption from complaints about other issues is likely to become artificial. But some themes are emerging.
Teaching and learning
From the outset, most of the complaints we have seen have been about disruption to teaching. In those cases, we have considered whether the provider did enough to make sure that the student was not academically disadvantaged by the disruption and could meet their learning outcomes, and whether the provider delivered something that matched what was promised and that was broadly equivalent to its usual arrangements. Where we have decided that a provider has not done enough, we have recommended steps it should take to put things right for the student.
Some students were hit by two waves of industrial action as well as the Covid-19 disruption during the academic year 2019-20, and we have seen several complaints from students about disruption to the whole year. In some cases, the provider had rejected the student’s complaint about the industrial action in late 2019 because it was raised too late. We think it is reasonable for students to have decided to complain about what turned out to be disruption to the whole academic year even though they did not complain after the first round of industrial action.
We have also seen some complaints from students about disruption to practical elements of their course or placement experience. Providers have made considerable efforts to try to make sure that students can still meet their learning outcomes and to replace practical elements with workable alternatives. But the alternatives don’t always work for every student. Where they haven’t worked, we have recommended compensation.
Assessments and appeals
We have seen a few complaints about changes providers made to assessments or progression requirements. In most cases, the provider has made reasonable changes to assessments and has taken appropriate steps to make sure that students know what they need to do to progress.
But we received fewer complaints arising from academic appeals in 2020 than in previous years. We think this is likely to be because providers’ ‘no detriment’ or ‘safety net’ policies meant that fewer students felt they needed to make an academic appeal—or that more were content with the outcome of the internal processes.
As we expected, we have seen several complaints from students asking for a refund of accommodation fees for periods when they were not living in their accommodation. We can look at those complaints if the accommodation is owned or managed by the provider, but not if the student is renting privately.
Most providers refunded—or decided not to charge—students for the period from mid-April to the end of the 2019-20 academic year. In most cases, that was the third instalment of accommodation fees, running from the end of the Easter vacation to the end of the summer term. In general, we think that was a fair approach to a very challenging situation.
Several students asked their provider to refund accommodation fees from 18 March 2020, when providers started to encourage students to return home, before the lockdown was announced on 23 March. Most providers have developed a refunds policy and we have looked at whether the policy was fair and whether it operated fairly for the individual student whose complaint we were considering. On balance, where the provider has a well-reasoned policy in place, we don’t think it is reasonable to expect it to make a further refund to students for that additional period. Where the provider has not had a policy in place, we have recommended that it should develop one.
So far, we have only seen a small number of complaints arising from academic or non-academic disciplinary proceedings.
It’s clear, though, that coronavirus restrictions have presented additional challenges in student accommodation. Rules around what constitutes a household have not always been clear-cut and it is not surprising that some students have fallen foul of them. On the other hand, providers have had a difficult task in ensuring that students in halls of residence are kept safe.
It is good to see that where a disciplinary process looks to have been flawed or unfair, providers have been receptive to reopening the disciplinary case to settle the complaint.
Large group complaints
Most of the complaints we have seen so far have been from individual students, but we have seen some complaints from groups and we are developing our process for complaints from large groups of students. This builds on our existing approach to group complaints by developing a bespoke approach to enable us to handle complaints from groups of students in a more efficient and proportionate way.
The process we are proposing is intended for complaints involving large groups of students (around 100 or more) at a single provider where there is a high degree of commonality between the complaints, so that the complaints could be considered collectively.
We think it is unlikely that this kind of situation would occur very often, but it is important to be well prepared. We had some useful feedback on our proposals during the consultation process and that has helped us to develop and refine our thinking. We hope to introduce a process that will reduce the administration for providers and the work involved for students in a large group complaint.
From the early stages of the pandemic, we have published information about our approach and provided guidance that we hope has been helpful to students and providers. In early March, we published a second batch of case summaries of complaints arising from the impact of the coronavirus. As with the first batch (published in November), we have selected some cases to illustrate different points to help provide an overview of the sort of issues we are seeing and the approach we are taking.
The very significant challenges the pandemic has presented to students and higher education have been reflected in the complaints we have seen in different ways over the course of the pandemic. These challenges are likely to continue to evolve. There are grounds for optimism in what we have seen of how providers, students and those who support them have responded to the pandemic, and we have been pleased that many have been open to reaching agreed resolutions to complaints. We think that this kind of constructive approach will be a crucial part of successfully navigating the considerable uncertainty and challenges of the coming months.
Felicity Mitchell is the independent adjudicator at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.