Student complaints to the universities watchdog surged to a record high last year.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received 2,850 complaints from university students in England and Wales in 2022 – the highest number ever received in a year – and a 3% increase on 2021.
Students faced “multiple challenges” last year – including the cost-of-living crisis, disruption to studies from industrial action, accommodation issues, and longer-term impacts of the pandemic, a report from the watchdog said.
Nearly two in five (38%) of the complaints to the OIA from students were about academic appeals, including problems with marking and final degree results, compared with 29% in 2021.
More of the coronavirus-related complaints received in 2022 related to academic appeals and fewer to “service issues” – which cover the quality of teaching, supervision and facilities – than in the previous two years.
The watchdog said the rise in complaints about academic matters could partly reflect the end of the “no detriment”, or safety net, assessment policies which were put in place at the start of the pandemic.
This approach typically ensured that students would be awarded a final grade no lower than the university’s most recent assessment of their attainment.
Overall, students received more than £1 million in compensation in 2022, which is down on the previous year but significantly above pre-pandemic levels.
An additional £640,000 in compensation was handed to students at one provider who had issued a large group complaint about disruption to their arts-based courses caused by Covid-19.
The watchdog found the complaint from the group of more than 400 students to be “partly justified” because it said the provider had not properly addressed some of the issues the students had raised about the disruption to their courses, and it took too long to consider the complaints.
The annual report from the OIA said: “During the year, students and providers were contending with multiple challenges, including the cost-of-living crisis, accommodation issues, concerns relating to international student recruitment, and disruption to studies from industrial action in higher education and more widely, as well as the longer-term impacts of the pandemic.”
But overall the number of Covid-related complaints was lower in 2022, accounting for under a quarter of complaints received by the watchdog.
Independent Adjudicator Felicity Mitchell said: “The last few years have thrown up extraordinary challenges. Students and providers have had more to contend with than during the whole of my 19 years at the OIA, and those who are most vulnerable have been most affected.
“We are seeing increasing levels of distress among students who are struggling to cope, and our report for 2022 reflects this. At the same time the pressures on providers make it more difficult for them to support students effectively.”
Dame Suzi Leather, chairwoman of the OIA board, said: “Our vision is that students are always treated fairly. A shared commitment to fairness for students must be at the heart of a successful higher education sector that delivers for students and for our wider society.
“The context of the legacy of the pandemic and the impact on so many students of acute cost-of -living pressures is making this more challenging, and even more important.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: “It is essential that university students receive a world-class education and get the high-quality service they are paying for, and we encourage students to report any concerns to their university in the first instance and raise a complaint with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they are not happy with their university’s response.
“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.”