Student complaints about universities surge to record high after strikes

Part of the rise was due to complaints arising from industrial action at a number of universities in 2018 Credit: Joe Giddens/PA

Complaints to the universities watchdog have surged to a record high – with dissatisfied students receiving more than £740,000 in refunds and compensation last year.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received 2,371 complaints from students in 2019 – the highest number ever received in a year – and it was an increase of 21% on 2018.

The bulk of complaints were over academic appeals – such as problems with marking and final degree results, but some of the increase can be attributed to complaints over industrial action.

Last year, 29% of the complaints reviewed related to “service issues”, which cover the quality of teaching, supervision and facilities. This is the highest proportion recorded by the adjudicator.

Part of the rise was due to complaints arising from industrial action at a number of universities in 2018 where students missed out on weeks of lectures and seminars, the watchdog has said.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) took part in an unprecedented wave of strikes at universities across the country in the spring of 2018 amid a dispute over pensions.

The adjudicator decided that a number of students were entitled to a refund of some of their tuition fees where the university had not done enough to make up for what had been missed.

The watchdog’s annual report says that issues affecting undergraduates on campuses, including the strikes and sexual harassment, have “increased focus on student complaints”.

“Students’ awareness of their consumer rights, and of routes to raise their concerns, continues to grow,” it adds.

Jo Grady, general secretary of UCU, said: “If you treat students like consumers and encourage them to behave like consumers then it is not perhaps that surprising they are more likely to complain if they are unhappy with the service being provided.

“We made clear from the outset that the strikes were only necessary because of universities’ refusal to negotiate properly with us on key issues around working conditions, pay and pension.”

She added: “What has become increasingly clear to us in recent years is that students understand that our working conditions are their learning conditions, and the support they offered during the strikes was phenomenal.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: “UK universities are required to make sure that their provision meets high levels of academic standards and quality as set out in the Quality Code.

“It is positive to see that students continue to be more aware of their consumer rights, and ways in which they can raise their concerns, and, while overall student satisfaction levels remain high, there is room for improvement.”

The OIA’s annual report shows that universities and colleges were told to pay £562,738 in compensation to students last year who had suffered financial loss, distress or inconvenience.

In addition, £182,651 was paid through settlements reached after students complained to the OIA, bringing the total compensation to £745,388 – which is higher than in 2018 (£639,515).

Nearly a quarter (23%) of all the cases dealt with were found to be partly or fully justified, or settled in favour of the student, which is a slight rise on 2018.

Most of the complaints were from students studying business and admin studies, as well as subjects allied to medicine and creative arts and design.