Students in England and Wales made record numbers of complaints against their universities last year after disruption to teaching caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and lecturers on strike resulted in widespread frustration with courses.
Students were particularly concerned that online learning was of lower quality than in-person lectures and seminars, according to the annual report from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), which acts as the final arbiter for student complaints and determines whether tuition fees should be refunded.
“2020 was an exceptionally challenging year for everyone who studies or works in higher education,” said Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator.
The OIA received 2,604 new complaints from students in 2020, 10% more than in 2019. It also ruled in favour of the student in a quarter of cases, more often than in previous years. It handed out £742,132 worth of refunds, of which £264,142 went to former students of GSM London after the private college went bust.
There was also a rise in complaints of sexual harassment from students, in line with a gradual increase in recent years, although the regulator said overall numbers remained low.
One anonymised case study revealed that a university had to offer £5,000 compensation to a student after it failed to inform them of the outcome of an internal investigation into a supervisor whom the student had reported as offering higher grades in exchange for sex.
Just 300 complaints, making 12% of the total, were directly related to the pandemic, likely to be due to the time lag as students must raise a complaint with their university before approaching the watchdog.
According to the report, a high proportion of coronavirus-related complaints came from international students in 2020, however it added that this has not been replicated so far in 2021.
The OIA said that while it was unable to pass judgments on the quality of teaching, it could look at whether students had been given the support and equipment to access online learning, whether universities had been flexible in how they deliver teaching and exams, and whether all aspects of each course’s content were covered.
One case study that sheds light on the OIA’s approach ruled that a student should be compensated for missing out on small group teaching during the staff strikes in late 2019 and early 2020. Although the university replaced these with online lectures, the regulator said these failed to reflect that “opportunities for discussion and debate were important for this course”.
Examples given by the OIA in March were seen as indicating it would offer students refunds for disruption due to the pandemic, even where this was not required by law.
Smita Jamdar, education partner at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, said: “The killer point for many complaints will be their assessment of whether what was provided matched what students reasonably expected and was broadly equivalent to usual arrangements. The OIA may conclude that in many cases this was not the case, even though the reasons for it may be pretty obvious given the pandemic.”
The OIA earlier announced new rules allowing groups of students to make joint complaints about courses, to allay fears that mass complaints could delay adjudication. Universities are said to be worried that high numbers of successful claims would threaten their financial stability.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that most university administrators did not trust A-level grades awarded in 2020, and that a majority felt standards in A-levels were not maintained as a result of the grading fiasco in England last summer.
A survey by Ofqual found that 51% of staff at higher education institutions felt A-levels awarded in 2020 were not “trusted qualifications”, and 54% said standards had not been maintained.
The survey also found a steep fall in public trust in A-level, AS-level and GCSEgrades last year, when exams were scrapped because of Covid-19 disruption and the initial grades awarded by Ofqual using an algorithm were also dropped after public outcry.
Instead A-level and GCSE grades in England were awarded by teacher assessment – although 56% of the headteachers surveyed by Ofqual said 2020’s GCSEs were not trusted qualifications, while two-thirds – 66% – thought standards had not been maintained.