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Student complaints and value for money

  • 19 November 2019
  • By Felicity Mitchell

This blog is an edited transcript of a speech delivered at the HEPI / PwC conference on the value of higher education by Felicity Mitchell, Independent Adjudicator at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

An introduction to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator

We run the student complaints scheme, reviewing student complaints once they have been through a higher education provider’s internal processes. Membership is compulsory for almost all higher education providers in England and Wales and we have over 800 members.

We receive around 2,000 complaints a year and rising. In 2018, 23% were about what we call ‘service issues’, which includes consumer-type complaints about things that were promised but not delivered, poor teaching, supervision and facilities, to name a few.

We share our learning from the complaints we see through our outreach programme and publications such as the Good Practice Framework. We also work with others to contribute to the development of policy, in the wider regulatory framework for higher education and in the ombuds sector.

How does value play out in complaints we see?

Value is in the eye of the beholder. It means something different for undergraduates and postgraduates, home and international students, students with jobs, degree apprentices, students living at home, students with support needs, students struggling to meet their living costs, in fact for every individual. It is not just value for money. Students value being listened to, treated as an individual and getting help and support when they need it, as well as contact hours, quality teaching, resources and facilities.

Even students who are not paying can still feel they did not get good value if the course did not deliver what was promised or what they expected it to deliver. A student who achieved the qualification they paid to study may not have got value from their studies. They may not have learned the skills or had the overall experience that they expected. And not getting the qualification does not necessarily mean that the student did not get good value.

Setting expectations – and delivering!

It should go without saying that students need sufficient, clear and accurate information upfront about what they can expect and when. Providers come unstuck if they overpromise and cannot deliver. But they also get into difficulties if they are too vague, so students have to fill in the details themselves. Students will be disappointed if they have made assumptions about what to expect because they were not given enough information. That disappointment often leads to a complaint.

Students in the same cohort sometimes complain to us as a group. They may be unhappy about the content and delivery of a course, because expected sessions or subjects were missed out or covered superficially. At the most serious end, students have missed out on a crucial part of the programme: they have not been taught a specific skill, or the course does not deliver expected professional accreditation. The complaint may be about a lack of support, difficulties with a lecturer or tutor or cancelled teaching hours. Sometimes it is about disruption caused by campus closure or reorganisation.

Putting things right

The provider may have done quite a lot to remedy the situation by the time the students complain to us, but the students do not think it is enough, or it has come too late. Students may be happy to see things improving for the next cohort, but that does not help them.

We look at what has gone wrong. What were the students promised, what was delivered and is there a shortfall? What has been done to make up for that shortfall and is that enough? Were the students kept well informed? What are students asking for?

Some students will be more seriously affected than others by things like changes to course structure, assessment methods, teaching venue or supervision arrangements. They might have chosen a course because it was delivered close to home. They might not be able to travel distances, afford extra transport costs or spend more time away from work or caring responsibilities. These are all things we need to consider when looking at whether changes have affected the value of the course for an individual student.

When we decide that the student has not got what they reasonably expected to get, and the provider has not remedied the situation effectively, we will look at whether there are practical steps it can take to put things right. If not, we will look at recommending a refund of some or all of the student’s tuition fees. We may recommend some compensation for the distress and inconvenience that the student has suffered. This may be because the provider has not communicated effectively, or the student has had to fight hard to make their complaint and the provider has missed opportunities to put things right. We also make ‘good practice’ recommendations, for example to change the programme information or advertising, or to improve the provider’s internal procedures.

Industrial action complaints

The complaints we received about last year’s industrial action were more than usually closely related to tuition fees. This may have been influenced by publicity encouraging students to claim compensation for missed teaching. Students tended to present these complaints in overtly consumerist language: ‘I did not get the teaching I paid for and so I want a refund’.

From what we have seen, providers tried to make sure that their students were not disadvantaged academically, for example, by changing the content of exams or assessment methods, and giving exam boards discretion to make allowance for unusually poor performance.

But that was only part of the picture. We also looked at whether the providers had made up for lost learning opportunities. Some delivered missed teaching by other methods, through online resources or allowing students to attend different seminar groups or sit in on later sessions. But some interpreted the student contract very narrowly and decided that they were not obliged to provide a specific number of taught sessions, so the students had suffered no loss. The logical conclusion of that line of argument is that it does not matter what the students have been taught as long as they come out with a degree at the end of it.

Our view is that if a student reasonably expects to learn about a specific topic, then the provider cannot make up for not delivering that learning simply by not examining the student on it. We have looked at what the provider has done to make up for what has been missed, and whether that has been enough for the individual student. A change in timetabling or assessment or teaching methods may have disadvantaged the student, for example because they have a disability or caring responsibilities. An international student or working student may not be able to attend extra teaching sessions.

Where the provider has not done enough we have recommended compensation for the student in the form of a proportion of tuition fees based on the notional cost of the missed hours with a significant reduction to take account of the notional cost of providing buildings, facilities, IT, library services, wellbeing and student support and administration. We also took into account the year of study and type of course: so a first-year English student is likely to get less than a fourth-year Engineering student.

We have published information about our approach to these cases, including illustrative case summaries on our website. With the latest industrial action fast approaching, we hope this information will be helpful to providers, students and those who support them.

Value for money is important, but it is not the whole story

We have found that students’ perception of value is more nuanced than a straightforward consumer perspective might suggest. It is influenced by students’ expectations and their individual circumstances and perspectives. Of course providers need to be clear about what they are offering and deliver what they have promised. But they also need to listen and respond to their students’ individual needs to give them a truly valuable higher education experience.

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