We have today (30 April) published our Annual Report for 2020.
The Report includes information about:
- How we have responded to the pandemic
- The number and outcomes of complaints we received and closed
- Trends in complaints, and complaints in the context of the pandemic
- Examples of the complaints students made to us
- How we share learning from complaints
- How we work with others in the higher education sector
- Information about developments in our organisation over the year.
Felicity Mitchell, Independent Adjudicator said:
“2020 was an exceptionally challenging year for everyone who studies or works in higher education. We hope that we have helped students and providers to navigate some of the difficulties they have faced through the work we have done during the year. We received and closed more complaints than ever before, published information and guidance in response to the pandemic, and developed a well-received fully online outreach programme to continue sharing learning.”
Ben Elger, Chief Executive, said:
“An increasingly important part of our role is working with others in the higher education regulatory landscape and with student and provider representative organisations, promoting a student-focused and joined-up approach. In 2020 we worked intensively with governments and relevant organisations to contribute to wider responses to the pandemic as well as to promote understanding of our role and be clear for students about when and how we can help.”
Our report in detail
Complaint numbers and outcomes
- We received 2,604 new complaints in 2020, 10% more than in 2019 (2,371) and our highest ever number.
- We closed 2,597 complaints, an increase of 19% on 2019 (2,185), and also our highest ever number.
- We closed more than 75% of cases within six months of receipt, sustaining the strong performance of 2019 despite rising case receipts.
- In total, 25% of cases were Justified (5%), Partly Justified (10%), or settled in favour of the student (10%). This is slightly higher than in recent years.
- In addition to the many practical remedies we recommended, we made Recommendations or settled cases with financial remedies totalling £742,132. We also made Recommendations totalling £264,142 on complaints arising from the closure of GSM London, which are recorded separately. The highest single amount we recommended was just over £30,500.
The nature of complaints
Complaints about service issues increased significantly, accounting for 43% of complaints we received in 2020. Complaints in this category relate to issues such as facilities, course delivery, teaching hours and research supervision, and included complaints about disruption caused by industrial action and the Covid-19 pandemic.
We received fewer complaints about academic appeals than in previous years (33% of case receipts in 2020). This is likely to be largely due to the use of “no detriment” or safety net policies during the pandemic. This category includes complaints about academic matters such as assessments, progression and grades (including requests for additional consideration).
Other categories of complaint remained broadly similar to recent years:
- Financial issues – 5%
- Equality law / human rights – 4%
- Disciplinary matters (academic) – 4%
- Welfare / non-course service issues – 4%
- Disciplinary matters (non-academic) – 3%
- Fitness to practise – 1%
Sharing learning from complaints
In 2020 we published extensive information and guidance in response to the pandemic, including case summaries illustrating our approach to coronavirus-related complaints. We also published a new section of our Good Practice Framework on Requests for additional consideration. The section gives good practice guidance for providers in designing procedures and handling individual cases where a student’s performance might have been affected by an unexpected event such as illness or bereavement.
We adapted our outreach work to deliver it fully online and ran an extensive programme of webinars and workshops. Our programme attracted participants from student representative bodies and providers across England and Wales and from the full range of our varied membership. We also held student discussion groups to hear directly from students about their experiences.
Our Report includes several case summaries which illustrate some of the kinds of complaints we saw during the year. These include:
- A group of students who complained about the way their course had been delivered (before the pandemic). The provider upheld some aspects of the complaint but the students were not satisfied with the compensation offered. We decided the complaint was Partly Justified. Although the provider had accepted there were problems with the course delivery, concerns had been raised a long time before and the provider had not acted on them. We recommended that the provider should give the students a refund of 50% of their tuition fees, and compensation for distress and inconvenience, and should take urgent steps to put in place measures to improve course delivery in the next academic year.
- A student who had complained to their provider that their dissertation supervisor was sexually harassing them. The student was allocated a new dissertation supervisor. There were long delays in investigating the issue but eventually the student was told that the supervisor remained in post but had been told not to contact the student again. We decided that the complaint was Justified. The provider should have explained the process it was following to the student, including the need to keep staff disciplinary matters confidential, and it should have treated the matter more urgently. The provider didn’t put measures in place to protect and support the student or to manage any contact between the student and the supervisor during the investigation. We recommended that the provider should review its procedures for considering these kinds of issues, should apologise to the student, and offer them compensation of £5,000 for distress.
- A student who made an academic appeal saying that they had been ill with Covid-19 before their final exams and this had affected their performance. They said they had self-isolated and had not seen their GP, and so didn’t have any evidence of their illness. The provider rejected the student’s appeal because the student had not asked the provider to take their illness into account at the time of the exams. We decided the complaint was Not Justified. The provider had taken a flexible approach to requests for additional consideration and had made it clear to students that they didn’t have to get evidence of their illness when asking for additional consideration. The student hadn’t explained why they couldn’t report their illness to the provider at the time of the exam.
Equality, diversity and inclusion
Equality, diversity and inclusion has been a significant focus this year, with race equality issues in particular brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement. Our Report includes information about the work we did during the year on these very important issues.