Student complaints about universities rise by 33%

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

Image caption,
Complaints about universities have risen for the fifth consecutive year

Student complaints against universities in England and Wales have reached record levels, the higher education ombudsman's annual report shows.

The independent adjudicator's office says complaints rose by 33%.

For the first time it names two universities, Westminster and Southampton, which failed to comply with the adjudicator's rulings.

Rob Behrens, head of the adjudicator's office, said the rise reflected a more "consumerist" attitude among students.

This is the fifth consecutive year that complaints have risen - with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator's report showing that 1,341 cases were considered.

Consumer awareness

One in five cases were fully or partially upheld - leading to compensation payments of almost £174,000, with a single biggest payment of £15,000.

The report also identifies two universities, Southampton and Westminster, which had failed to comply with the adjudicator's recommendations - although it does not give details of the individual cases.

Mr Behrens said that the increase in complaints reflected a greater sense of consumer awareness among students, heightened by the prospect of a sharp increase in tuition fees.

"There has been a lot of policy discussion about fees in the past year and it's concentrated students' minds into thinking about the merits of what they're getting.

"It's encouraged them to be more like consumers - and consumers are more likely to complain," said Mr Behrens.

He also said that a tough graduate jobs market had made students more aware of the importance of university.

With a further shake-up of higher education expected to create greater competition, Mr Behrens says it will become even more important for universities to provide transparent information for students.

The complaints addressed by the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) are those which have not been resolved within universities - and the OIA suggests that this represents about one in seven of the complaints from students.

The adjudicator also cannot consider complaints about academic judgement, such as degree grades or marking.

But it can examine challenges on "academic-related issues" - the largest category of complaints.

This includes whether due process has been followed in degree classification and whether mitigating circumstances, such as illnesses, have been taken into account.

It also includes complaints about the handling of accusations of cheating and plagiarism.

Among the successful complaints was one from a PhD candidate who complained that "the external and internal examiners did not have sufficient expertise at the appropriate level to examine a PhD".

An unsuccessful complaint had claimed the university had failed to provide enough tutors and claimed there had been bullying during a work placement.

The annual report shows that overseas students, mature students and postgraduates are disproportionately likely to complain.

Business, medicine-related subjects and law are the areas most likely to generate complaints.

"Across the sector, student satisfaction levels remain very high and we have no reason to expect them to drop this year. This is testament to the passion and hard work of university staff," said Professor Sir Steve Smith, president of Universities UK.

"Universities are not complacent and there will be challenges ahead. Universities will have to be increasingly clear about what they offer students."

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