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‘Special process’ to be used for group complaints from students

Independent adjudicator says she is prepared for possible deluge of student cases

The higher education ombudsbody for England and Wales is testing “special processes” that would allow it to more quickly process complaints from large numbers of dissatisfied students, the independent adjudicator has told Research Professional News.

Because of the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which has forced thousands of students to lock down in accommodation blocks and has seen many lectures and seminars take place online, there are fears that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education could be overrun with cases over the next year.

Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator, said she believed the OIA would “be able to manage”, although it would inevitably “put pressure on our ability to turn around cases quickly”.

“[We want] to encourage students in higher education providers to resolve issues without having to go through a formal process and out to us,” Mitchell told Research Professional News. “Then, we’ve got other things in the pipeline—for example, we’re looking at a special process for if we get a really big group of students coming to us about one thing, [such as] a whole cohort complaint…about a Covid disruption.”

This comes after Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, told the House of Commons education committee that the OIA might consider offering tuition fee rebates to multiple students at a particular university or on a particular course. 

“What [the OIA] do is they look at clusters, so say there were a few [cases] within a certain university or within a certain course, then they could potentially look at remedies to resolve the situation, look at solutions for that entire cohort—that might mean discounts,” Donelan told the committee on 6 October. 

Mitchell said it was “absolutely right” that students who were “unhappy with what’s been going on, and who have not been getting what they reasonably expect to get, should be able to complain to us”—provided they had already exhausted their institutions’ internal complaint processes. 

She added that the OIA had only received “about 140 Covid-related” cases so far, and that these mostly related to the end of the last academic year. Because students have a year to take their complaint to the ombudsbody, it is still very early for the OIA to be receiving complaints related to provision this academic year, Mitchell said.  

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