Student complaints to the universities watchdog over teaching, supervision and course-related facilities have surged during the year of the pandemic.
More than two in five (43%) of the complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) from students were about “service issues” – which includes complaints about disruption caused by industrial action and the coronavirus pandemic – compared with just 29% in 2019.
Complaints from students about disruption to their university due to the pandemic accounted for 12% of all those received in 2020.
But the OIA, which looks at students’ complaints in England and Wales, stressed there is a time lag in complaints reaching the adjudicator as students have to raise their complaint with their university first.
Earlier this month, the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that all remaining students in England will not be allowed to return to in-person lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.
Most students in England, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January.
University students first saw their teaching moved online in the spring term last year when the national lockdown in March was announced.
Earlier this year, the watchdog revealed that it had received 2,604 complaints from students during the year of the pandemic – the highest number ever received in a year – and an increase of 10% on 2019.
The OIA, which can offer partial tuition refunds, received just over 300 complaints about the impact of Covid – and the majority of coronavirus-related complaints were about disruption to teaching and learning.
International students accounted for a relatively high proportion of coronavirus-related complaints last year, and postgraduate students accounted for around half of Covid-related complaints received.
But the proportion of complaints received about academic appeals – such as problems with marking and final degree results – dropped from 48% in 2019 to 33% in 2020.
This is most likely because of the use of “no detriment” or safety net policies during the pandemic, the watchdog said.
The OIA’s annual report says: “The profound impact of coronavirus has raised difficult questions around what fairness for students looks like in this context. Many students have experienced huge disruption to their lives as well as to their studies.
“Providers have worked very hard to deliver learning and support students in extremely difficult circumstances, but it is still the case that most students have not had the experience of higher education that they would reasonably expect in more normal circumstances.”
It comes after a group of students’ unions claimed that the OIA’s complaints process is too long and complex and means the watchdog is “unequipped” to provide students with “collective fee justice”.
The report concludes: “Our statutory remit is to review student complaints and our role does not extend to making wider recommendations on issues such as tuition fee refunds for every student, outside of complaints processes.”
Overall, the OIA’s annual report shows that universities and colleges were told to pay £459,582 in compensation last year to students who had suffered financial loss, distress or inconvenience.
In addition, £282,550 was paid through settlements reached after students complained to the OIA, taking the total compensation to £742,132 – which is slightly less than last year
A quarter (25%) of all the cases dealt with were found to be partly or fully justified, or settled in favour of the student, which is slightly higher than in recent years.
Most of the complaints were from students studying business and administrative studies, social studies, and subjects allied to medicine.
Independent adjudicator Felicity Mitchell said: “2020 was an exceptionally challenging year for everyone who studies or works in higher education.
“We hope that we have helped students and providers to navigate some of the difficulties they have faced through the work we have done during the year.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Universities understand that this has been a difficult year for students and acknowledge the challenges caused by the pandemic.
“Universities and their staff have done all they can to help students progress with their studies and meet their learning outcomes while adapting their provision in line with government restrictions and public health advice.
“UK universities remain committed to providing a high quality and engaging educational experience for their students, while prioritising their physical and mental wellbeing, and have invested heavily in Covid-19 safety measures, enhanced digital learning platforms, and additional learning and wellbeing support.
“All universities have complaints procedures which should be students’ first port of call where they do have concerns.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have been clear that that the quality and quantity of tuition should not drop as a result of the pandemic, and the Office for Students have been monitoring to ensure this is the case.
“Where students do not feel appropriate education is being provided, we expect this to be resolved by providers, and we welcome the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) in cases where this has not been possible.”