The universities watchdog’s annual report shows it received 2,604 complaints in 2020, 10% more than 2019.

Of these, 43% – up from 29% in 2019 – concerned service issues, including facilities, teaching time and academic supervision, and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which alone accounted for 12%.

And a total of £742,132 was paid to students as compensation.

‘Huge disruption’

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), which covers England and Wales, said it had been a “uniquely challenging year” for students.

“The profound impact of coronavirus has raised difficult questions around what fairness for students looks like in this context,” its report said.

“Many students have experienced huge disruption to their lives as well as to their studies.”

University teaching moved online in March 2020, when the first national lockdown was announced, and only students studying more practical courses have been allowed back on campus, since the start of the year.

Students in England were told earlier this month they could return on all university courses no earlier than 17 May.

Last week, a group of students’ unions wrote an open letter urging the competition regulator to:

  • address the “broken” complaints process for students claiming refunds
  • help advise students on withholding fee payments “if they have lost out” because of the pandemic

Sexual misconduct

The report details a number of cases the OIA has reviewed over the past year, including examples relating to course delivery, the impact of Covid-19, and, in one instance, a student who told a member of the student well-being staff their dissertation supervisor was sexually harassing them and offering higher grades in exchange for sexual activity.

The staff member informed the student’s academic department, which notified the human-resources department, and the student was allocated a new dissertation supervisor.

After the student complained to the OIA about the time the process had taken, the lack of transparency, and the outcome, the university was told to pay the student £5,000 compensation.

Overall, the OIA saw a rise in complaints about sexual misconduct in 2020 but the numbers are small.

This comes after a number of universities were mentioned on the Everyone’s Invited website, which has highlighted allegations of a “rape culture” in education settings.

Social studies

The proportion of complaints about academic appeals – such as problems with marking and final degree results – dropped from 48% in 2019 to 33% in 2020.

The report suggests this is likely to be largely due to measures to help students during the pandemic.

A quarter of all the cases dealt with were found to be partly or fully justified, or settled in favour of the student, which is slightly higher than in recent years.

The students most likely to complain were those studying:

  • business and administrative studies
  • social studies
  • subjects allied to medicine

Source: BBC News