OIA open letter re Hamon & Others v University College London

We are writing this open letter to the students involved in the Student Group Claim, their legal representatives, Students' Union UCL, and UCL and their legal representatives to provide more information about our role and our likely approach if students bring their complaints to us after they have been considered by UCL.

It is not yet known whether or not we will receive complaints relating to the Student Group Claim, and if we do, how many that might be or the exact nature of the complaints. This limits what we are able to confirm at this point in time, but we hope that the information below is helpful. 

We ask the students’ legal representatives and UCL to help make sure that the students involved are made aware of this letter so that if they are unhappy with the outcome of UCL’s internal process, it can inform their decision about whether or not to bring their complaint to us. 

The OIA’s remit is to look at student complaints where the student or students involved are not satisfied with the outcome of their higher education provider’s internal processes, and to share learning from those complaints to help improve policies and practices. We are an independent organisation and we review complaints impartially, looking at the provider’s final decision on the complaint and considering whether the provider followed fair procedures, whether it acted reasonably in the circumstances, and whether the outcome of the complaint was reasonable and fair. We can look at complaints about a wide range of issues, including the impact of disruption to students’ studies. Our Scheme is free for students. 

It is usually best if complaints can be resolved within the higher education provider’s internal processes. Most student complaints are resolved in this way. We have provided guidance for higher education providers on handling complaints arising from significant disruption such as the pandemic or industrial action. In circumstances where there are complaints from a large number of students, it is helpful if the provider considers the complaints in groups based on likely similarity of experience, for example each student’s course and/or year of study. We also suggest in our guidance that the provider considers adapting its usual complaints process to streamline it. The provider should issue Completion of Procedures Letters to the students at the end of any adapted process so that if the students are unhappy with the outcome they can come to us if they choose to. The Letters should make clear the timeframe of four weeks within which complaints must be submitted to us (see also below). 

When we review complaints about the impact of disruption, we look more widely than just whether it was reasonable to put teaching online in response to strike action or the pandemic. We consider what steps the provider took to minimise the disruption for students. We look at what was promised, what was delivered and whether it was broadly equivalent, whether it was what students could reasonably expect in terms of contact hours and other learning opportunities, and what the provider did to make sure students could achieve their learning outcomes. Where there has been a shortfall of delivery, we consider what the consequences were for the student, whether the provider considered those consequences, and what the provider did to respond to the shortfall. We take into account consumer legislation and guidance from relevant bodies, and in cases relating to the pandemic, government guidance and the circumstances at the time. As an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme, we don’t make legally binding decisions about individuals’ rights and whether they have been breached, and we look more widely than contractual terms and conditions. 

When we uphold a complaint we make Recommendations to the provider to put things right for the student or students. We sometimes recommend practical remedies such as opportunities to make up for lost learning, and we can recommend tuition fee refunds and/or compensation for distress and inconvenience. We have made Recommendations like these in cases relating to the pandemic and industrial action. 

We have published case summaries of some of the complaints to us arising from industrial action and the pandemic. These show our approach and where applicable the Recommendations we made. 

If UCL’s internal process is completed and a large number of students in the Student Group Claim then decide to bring their complaints to us, we would consider the complaints under our Large Group Complaints process. This process is designed to enable us to handle complaints from large groups of students efficiently whilst maintaining fairness. Each student would need to complete an OIA Complaint Form, and to submit this to us within four weeks of the date of their Completion of Procedures Letter so that their complaint can be considered as part of the group. More information is available in our guidance on the Large Group Complaints process. 

In the circumstances we would treat the group complaint as a high organisational priority, whilst also being mindful of other demands on our resources and fairness to other students who are using our service. The length of time our review would take would be affected by various factors, including the number of students who choose to pursue their complaint through us. It is helpful to our reviews if students’ complaints make it clear why they are unhappy with the provider’s response to their complaint, if students are able to co-ordinate their engagement with our review process, and if the provider has organised its internal handling of the complaints in a way that takes into account that students on different courses and in different cohorts may have been impacted differently and has fully considered the issues. 

We hope that the concerns of students in the Student Group Claim can be successfully addressed through UCL’s internal complaints processes, but we are taking steps to prepare for any complaints that reach us. 

We are happy to engage with any questions about our role or approach that the students, their legal representatives, Students' Union UCL or UCL may have. Please email leadershipoffice@oiahe.org.uk in the first instance.