The OIA’s Annual Report – Cause for Concern?

The OIA has recently published its annual report, a document that makes for fascinating but in places quite worrying reading. In this piece, Robin Jacobs, one of our education specialists, discusses the report.

As most readers will already be aware, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education is an ombudsman which deals with complaints by students. The scheme applies to most, though not all, higher education providers in England and Wales. It is designed to provide all involved with an informal and cheap means of resolving grievances.

Once a year, the OIA publishes a report setting out statistics and themes for the calendar year just gone. The report for 2017 came out at the end of the last month. If the accompanying comments are anything to go by, the OIA feels the job’s a good’un! One senior OIA figure was quoted as saying:

“The Report reflects our ongoing strong performance in reviewing student complaints. It matters to students that their concerns are resolved in a timely way, and in 2017 we delivered this, exceeding all of our key performance indicators that relate to the timeliness of our processes. When things go wrong we can recommend practical remedies to put things right for students, and our Report gives some examples of this. It is of course even better to prevent issues arising in the first place. In 2017 we significantly developed our work to share learning from complaints, promoting good practice across the sector.”

And yet, the statistics themselves do not necessarily support the view that the concerns of students are being heard. For example;

– Of the complaints received in 2017, only 4% were found to be ‘Justified’ with a further 11% found ‘Partly Justified’ and 9% being settled without a formal outcome. One cannot help feeling this to be a little on the low side, not least as any student who bothers to approach the OIA will already have gone to the time and trouble of exhausting the provider’s own internal procedures and will in all probability be continuing to pursue the matter out of a genuine sense of injustice rather than simply for the sake of it.

– 5% of complaints received (so approximately 70) apparently related to ‘discrimination and human rights.’ This is a significant number and, given that the OIA does not typically apply the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 in the way that a court would or make findings as to whether there has been discrimination, there has to be some doubt as to whether these students are being afforded their full legal rights.

– Non-EU students continue to be over-represented in the complaints received, with 23% of complaints coming from such students even though they only comprise 13% of the overall UK student body. This tends to reflect a theme that fee-earners at this firm see more and more in their own cases, namely that the level of service international students receive from UK providers falls far short of commensurability with the very high tuition fees they pay and the other sacrifices they make in order to study in our green and pleasant land.

– Where a complaint is upheld, compensation tends to be on the low side. The amount of compensation recommended to students in 2017 totaled around £583k with the largest individual award being £47k. This suggests that, while the OIA might be a useful means of achieving practical outcomes, students whose main goal is to obtain financial compensation may be better off heading straight to court.

It is also worth noting that, whilst the OIA is very happy with its turnaround speeds (it claims that it consistently closes more than 75% of cases within 6 months of receipt and that in 2017 it closed more complaints than it received) this does not seem to sit well with recent anecdotal reports of students having to wait many months just to have their complaint allocated to a case handler. It will be interesting to see if the OIA is able to make similar boasts about speed in its 2018 report and if so, how it reconciles these with individual experiences.

The picture is not all doom and gloom. There is no doubt that the OIA provides practical and fair outcomes to many students who would be unable to afford legal action proper before the courts. A number of the case studies published in the report are quite encouraging in this respect. However, any student considering how best to progress a grievance should be aware of the scheme’s many limitations. Perhaps future OIA reports would do well to place greater emphasis on these limitations as well.

The report can be viewed here:

Have you recently made a complaint to the OIA? Are you considering doing so? We’d be interested to hear about your experiences.

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