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Cause to complain?


Providers must engage with their students’ concerns about Covid-19, says Felicity Mitchell  

The coronavirus is set to affect higher education, in one way or another, for years to come. But it’s helpful to look at the initial crisis period of the past few months separately from the ‘new normal’, whatever that means, that will start to emerge in the autumn.

In the initial period, providers have worked hard to shift learning online where possible and have adopted a variety of approaches to assessments and ‘no detriment’ policies. Students have had to cope with significant disruption to their studies and adapt to new modes of learning in sometimes very challenging circumstances. Some providers will have managed this more successfully than others, and the changes will have worked better for some students than for others. Complaints are likely to arise from the faultlines.

What the next academic year will look like is hard to predict. It’s obviously important for students who are making decisions—decisions that are likely to affect the rest of their lives—to know what they are committing themselves to and what they can expect, and it is equally important for providers not to overpromise. Another spike in UK-wide or local coronavirus infections could derail the best of plans. Students may be happy to sign up to a term of online learning, but a full year may not be so palatable. Others may have chosen a course because of face-to-face elements that might have to be abandoned if there is another lockdown.

Language students may see their crucial year abroad evaporate. Work placements may be lost, shortened or postponed. Access to labs, design and art spaces, performance opportunities and professional placements may all be reduced. What students who are going into their first year, with their eyes open, decide to accept might not work for re-enrolling students whose expectations are based on what they were promised when they signed up in a different age. And postgraduate and PhD students are likely to face some distinct challenges.

Nobody wants to see a lot of unhappy students complaining about their experience or appealing against academic decisions that were affected by the lockdown—least of all us at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. It is better for everyone if providers can support students well and deal effectively with their concerns so that they do not need to complain to us. Our work on good practice is intended to help with this.

Consumer rights

So far, we have seen very few complaints about the situation. But students who are still unhappy once they have completed their providers’ internal processes have 12 months to complain to us, and providers’ complaints and appeals teams may well have been affected by lockdown. So we expect there to be a bit of a lag before complaints start to filter through in numbers. What are the issues likely to be, and how will we approach them?

Consumer protection legislation has not been suspended for students and this means that providers should still deliver the learning and other services that students reasonably expect to receive. But for some providers and learners this has presented enormous challenges during lockdown—and we all need to be realistic about what is possible during this crisis period.

As an ombudsbody, the OIA looks at what the provider has done or not done, whether it has followed fair procedures and whether it has acted reasonably in all circumstances. The circumstances include relevant law and guidance—including consumer legislation and relevant guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority, the Office for Students and the Quality Assurance Agency—as well as the national and higher education context. We are not making legally binding decisions about individuals’ rights and we look more widely than the strict terms of any contractual arrangements.

What students can reasonably expect, and what providers can reasonably be expected to deliver, is likely to change and evolve as circumstances change and evolve. But not delivering what was promised, or at least something broadly equivalent to it, is unlikely to be considered reasonable, especially once the initial crisis period has passed.

Clear communication

Students who feel that changes have been done to them rather than agreed with them are far more likely to be unhappy. Providers that have engaged with their students, explaining what is and what is not possible—and why—are much more likely to bring their students along with them.

Being clear upfront will be all the more important as we go into the next academic year. Students need to have as much information as possible about what the year will look like, including what might happen if restrictions are tightened again, so that they can make informed choices. Students who are continuing with their studies need to understand what has changed and what they can expect. And as government guidance evolves over the summer and beyond, providers will need to keep students up to date with how any changes might affect their studies.

Providers are being encouraged to ensure that they continue to offer “good quality” courses if they want to charge the full tuition fee. What is less clear is what this means in practice—although there is some good practical advice and guidance available, such as the QAA’s guidance on online delivery and preserving academic standards.

The OIA can look at complaints about what was promised and what was delivered. For example, complaints that the provider did not cover subject areas that it said it would, that the student couldn’t access teaching because of accessibility issues, that the student’s supervisor didn’t keep in touch or that the provider didn’t support its students adequately.

But assessments about the quality of what has been delivered are likely to involve academic judgement, which we can’t look at. So we wouldn’t be able to consider a complaint that teaching was not of an adequate academic standard, or that an online teaching session wasn’t as good as it would have been face to face, or that a postgraduate student did not get supervision of satisfactory quality.

One size doesn’t fit all

Arrangements that might work well for many students may not work for all. Students are likely to encounter all sorts of accessibility issues. Online teaching arrangements may not work for some students with learning or processing differences. Some students will be shielding or have caring responsibilities. Some will have poor internet connections and some will have no access to IT equipment at all. Some will simply not be able to work effectively from the space they are living in.

Providers need to seek out students who are not engaging with online delivery and who may find it difficult because of their individual circumstances. Empathy and flexibility are crucial: a rigid adherence to regulations and processes is unlikely to work in a world that has been turned upside down.

Students often complain to us about how their provider has dealt with their concerns, as well as about the concerns themselves. With some providers in crisis mode, welfare and advice services and complaints and appeals functions may have slipped down the priorities list.

But those with properly resourced support and advice services and an engaged and effective student union or other student body are likely to find it easier to support students so that their concerns can be managed effectively. It’s equally important to keep students informed about the process that is being followed and any potential delays.

The pandemic is forcing us to think differently and more creatively. To safely navigate the significant challenges ahead, we need to put students, and especially those who face additional challenges, more securely at the heart of our thinking and planning, and to come together in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation. We need that now more than ever.

Felicity Mitchell is the independent adjudicator for higher education at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the independent body set up to review student complaints about higher education providers in England and Wales. Students can complain to the OIA, free of charge, once they have been through their provider’s internal processes.