Using the Scheme


This section provides an overview of what we do. Students making a complaint should read this section. It also provides useful information for students' unions and universities.

This information is not intended to be a full guide to the Scheme. For more information please read our Rules and Guide. Please note that our Rules take precedence over other documents and the content on the website.

The OIA provides an independent Scheme which reviews student complaints against universities. This also includes academic appeals.

The Scheme covers all qualifying Higher Education Institutions in England and Wales. These include universities and colleges, but for ease of reference we use the word 'university' throughout the website. We also have a Protocol for admitting Non-Qualifying Institutions to the Scheme.

The Scheme is free for students to use.

The OIA deals with complaints from individual students. Where we find complaints to be Justified or Partly Justified we may make Recommendations to the university. We also publish good practice guidance for the higher education sector.

We will treat users of the Scheme fairly and with respect.

Who can complain?

Students can complaint to the OIA if they:

  • are or were registered as a student at a university on our list or
  • are or were studying at another institution and one of the universities on our list awards the qualification.

If the complaint relates to a university or college that does not appear on our list, the student will normally have to complete the internal complaints procedures of the institution at which they are studying first. Once they have completed these procedures, the student will then need to follow the procedures of the university which awards the qualification.

What can a student complain about?

We can review a wide range of complaints by students about any act or omission of a university on our list.

For students studying at an institution which is not on our list, we can only look at complaints in so far as they relate to an act or omission of the university which awards the qualification.

Examples of complaints we can look at include:

  • Any final decision of the university
  • A service provided by the university
  • Teaching and facilities
  • Student accommodation
  • Research supervision
  • Welfare
  • Discrimination - race, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation or religious belief
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Placements
  • Maladministration
  • Procedural irregularities
  • Unfair practices
  • Disciplinary matters, including plagiarism
  • Fitness to practise issues

What can't the OIA look at?

Examples of complaints we cannot look at include:

  • Admissions
  • Academic judgment
  • Student employment
  • Matters which have already been considered by a court or tribunal and where the proceedings have been concluded
  • Matters which are being considered by a court or tribunal where the proceedings have not been
  • Matters which we consider have not materially affected the complainant as a student
  • Matters which the OIA has already dealt with
  • We will not normally look at complaints where the main issues complained about took place more than three years before the complaint is received by the OIA

If you are unsure whether we can look at your complaint, please contact us.

Our Approach

We prefer a university to have the opportunity to put matters right itself. This is why we normally expect students to complete the internal complaints or appeals procedures of the university before coming to the OIA. However if the student remains dissatisfied with the university’s final response they can bring their complaint to the OIA.

Our role is to 'review' the final decision of the university not to re-investigate the complaint that the student made to the university. We are not part of the university’s appeal process. We do not normally substitute our Decisions for those of the university.

We look at whether the university applied its regulations properly and followed its procedures correctly. We also consider whether any decision made by the university was fair and reasonable in all the circumstances.

Our procedures are informal and are mostly paper-based. This is because the Scheme is open and transparent, so both the student and the university see all relevant information. However we are committed to treating personal data in accordance with our Data Protection Policy.

Where possible we will communicate with both parties by email.

We are not like a court and we do not normally need to hold hearings.

Making a complaint to the OIA

Normally a student must first complete the internal complaints or appeals procedures of the university. The university should then promptly issue a Completion of Procedures Letter to the student.

If the student is not satisfied with the university’s final decision, they should send a completed Complaint Form to the OIA. This must be received by the OIA within three months of the date of the Completion of Procedures Letter; otherwise we may consider the complaint to be out of time. For example, if the Completion of Procedures Letter is dated 7 January, we should receive the Complaint Form by 7 April

In exceptional circumstances, we may look at a complaint where the internal complaints or appeals procedures have not been completed.

For further information see 'How to make to a complaint'.

What happens next?

Complaints Process

We will acknowledge receipt of the Complaint Form.

When we receive your form we first check to see if your complaint is something we can deal with and has been received within the timescales set out in our Rules.

The complaint is allocated to a case-handler who will contact both parties. The case handler will confirm whether the complaint is eligible or not.

We will normally send a copy of the Complaint Form and the information provided by the student to the university.

If the Complaint Form was received more than three months after the date of the Completion of Procedures Letter, then normally we will consider the complaint to be out of time, unless there are good reasons why it is late. If we take on a complaint out of time, we will tell both parties why we have done so.

We will then make a decision about whether the complaint is eligible. We may have some questions for the student or university at this time. If the complaint is not eligible we will inform both parties, and explain why.

If the complaint is eligible under our Rules, we will then look at the merits of the case.

The case-handler might

  • Try to settle or mediate the complaint
  • Ask the university for its comments on the complaint
  • Ask the university or the student for more information
  • Issue a Complaint Outcome in respect of the complaint
  • Send the student information to comment on
  • Contact the student to discuss their complaint and whether their desired outcome is achievable

Comments made and documents submitted by either the university or the student during our review will be sent to the other party. Exceptionally we may accept information confidentially, for example where the student or the university request this with good reason, or we may return information to the party who submitted it.

We will continue to look for early resolution and settlement opportunities in all cases.

When the case-handler is satisfied that he or she has all the information necessary, and there is no prospect that the complaint can be resolved without the need to issue a decision, they will issue a Complaint Outcome. Both parties will then have the opportunity to comment on the Complaint Outcome if they wish to do so. Any comments received will be considered by a member of our approval team, who will determine whether the comments materially affect the outcome of the review. If they do, then a second Complaint Outcome will normally be issued. This will then become our Final Decision.

If no comments are received, we will write to both parties to confirm that the Complaint Outcome is our Final Decision.

Please note that we do not offer emergency remedies and that it may take six months or more for us to look at complaints.

Each case is considered individually and the way we deal with the complaint is at the discretion of the case-handler.

The Complaint Outcome may be Justified, Partly Justified or Not Justified.

If we find the complaint to be Justified or Partly Justified, we may make Recommendations to the university.

If we find the complaint to be Justified or Partly Justified or Not Justified, we may also make Suggestions, Observations or comments on good practice.

For examples of previous decisions we have made please see our recent decisions.

Examples of recommendations

We may recommend:

  • that the university looks at a matter again because it did not follow its procedures
  • that the complaint should be looked at by another body (for example, the Information Commissioner’s Office)
  • that the university should offer to pay the student compensation (for example, for inconvenience and delay)
  • that the university should do something that we consider to be fair in the circumstances (for example, to consider what adjustments it should make for a disability)
  • that the university changes the way it handles appeals and / or complaints
  • that the university should review or change its procedures or regulations
  • that the university should apologise for mistakes it has made or for acting unfairly.

We normally try to put the student back in the position they would have been in, had the act or omission by the university not occurred. However this may not always be possible or appropriate and in such cases we may award compensation, or some other remedy.

We would not normally require the university to change a mark or a degree classification. This is because we cannot interfere with the university’s academic judgment. We may refer the matter back to the university to be looked at again.

We would not normally require an individual to offer an apology or for the university to discipline an individual. This is because we are looking at what the university has done wrong rather than what an individual has done. We can recommend that the university refers staff for training or that the university should apologise.

It is outside our remit to monitor or regulate universities. We cannot punish or fine them.

What happens after the Final Decision?

We expect universities to comply with our Recommendations fully and within the timescale we give. This may include making an offer to a student.

Our Decisions are final, and there is no appeal against a Final Decision of the OIA. However, they are not binding on a student. This means that the student can reject the decision, and any offer made by the university, and pursue any other available remedy. If the student accepts the university’s offer, then he or she will not be able to take the complaint further. We cannot give advice to students on any further action they might be able to take because we must remain independent. The students' union may be able to offer further assistance.

We follow up compliance with our Recommendations where these have been made. Non-compliance is considered to be a serious matter and is reported to the Board and published in our Annual Report.

We encourage universities to take note of our Suggestions, Observations and good practice points. However, if a university does not follow these, that does not mean that it has failed to comply with our Decision.

Our decisions are subject to Judicial Review.