This glossary contains brief explanations of a number of terms used regularly by the OIA. It conveys the broad meanings we intend to express when using the terms, but it should not be relied on to provide an exhaustive definition of the terms.

A B C D E F G H I J K  L M N O  P Q R S T U  V W X  Y  Z

Academic Judgment

Academic judgment is a judgment that is made about a matter where only the opinion of an academic expert is sufficient.

The Higher Education Act 2004 specifically states that we cannot look at academic judgment. Rule 5.2 in our Scheme Rules states that we cannot consider a complaint to the extent that it relates to a matter of academic judgment. For example, we cannot put ourselves in the position of the examiners in order to re-mark work or pass comment on the marks given to the student. However, we can look at whether the HE provider has correctly followed its own procedures, for example, its assessment, marking and moderation procedures, and whether there was any unfairness or bias in the decision-making process the HE provider followed.

A decision about assessment, a degree classification, fitness to practise, research methodology, or course content or outcomes will normally involve academic judgment. The following areas do not involve academic judgment: decisions about the fairness of procedures, whether they have been correctly interpreted, what the facts are, how a provider has communicated with the student, whether an opinion has been expressed outside the area of an academic's competence, the way the evidence has been considered, whether there is evidence of bias or maladministration.


Academic Misconduct

This refers to any prohibited means used to receive course credit, a higher grade, or to avoid a lower grade. Plagiarism, collusion, having unauthorised materials in an examination and other forms of cheating constitute academic misconduct. Individual HE providers should set out what they consider to be academic misconduct in their regulations. The term 'Academic Integrity' is often used in connection with this, and means a moral code or ethical code which includes values such as avoidance of cheating and plagiarism, as well as maintenance of academic standards, honesty and rigor in research, etc.


Academic Status

This refers to a student's relationship with the HE provider, for example, registered student, completed, suspended or withdrawn/terminated.


Act or Omission

In the context of a complaint, this means something a student thinks the HE provider has done wrong or something the HE provider should have done and has failed to do.



This is the process of a student applying for, and gaining entry to, a course (programme of study). All HE providers have their own processes in place which govern decisions about the selection and entry of its students.

Our Rule 5.1 states that we do not cover complaints that relate to a student's admission to a HE provider, unless the person complaining is a former student of that higher education provider who is applying for re-admission, and their complaint is directly connected to their time as a student. However, if a student were progressing from one course to another, for example, from MPhil to PhD, we would look at the provider’s procedures to decide whether the complaint is an admission issue.



Bias is a tendency to favour one person or group, thing or point of view over another, especially in a way considered to be unfair.


Burden of proof/Standard of proof

The 'burden of proof' determines who responsibility it is to prove an issue. In a disciplinary case we would expect the burden of proof to be on the Provider, that is, the Provider must prove that the student has done what he or she is accused of doing. The student should not have to disprove the allegation. So, for example, if a student is accused of taking a mobile phone into an examination, it will be for the Provider to prove that he or she had the phone with them during the examination.

The 'standard of proof' is the level of proof required. In legal proceedings the standard of proof in criminal proceedings is normally 'beyond reasonable doubt', which is a very high standard. In civil cases it is normally 'the balance of probabilities', that is, something more likely than not to have happened. Although the 'balance of probabilities' standard is lower than 'beyond reasonable doubt', it must still be supported by evidence. It is more than simply believing that something is likely to have happened.

A Provider's regulations should explain clearly the standard of proof required in disciplinary and fitness to practise proceedings but, if they do not, we would normally assume that it is 'balance of probabilities'.

The OIA will normally expect a student to prove his or her case on the balance of probabilities.

Casework Quality Group

The Casework Quality Group (CQG) monitors the consistency and quality of the OIA's reviews and decisions. The Group meets regularly and is made up of the Managers of the Assessment and Adjudication teams, the Deputy Adjudicator, and the Independent Adjudicator. The CQG is chaired by the Deputy Adjudicator, Felicity Mitchell.

The CQG's purpose is to ensure that the OIA produces consistent and reasonable decisions, which provide a fair, balanced and proportionate response to the complaint. The key aims of the CQG are to ensure that the OIA's processes operate fairly and consistently, that there is a consistency in OIA decisions, and that there are mechanisms for capturing key information for external and internal communication.


This refers to a group (of students) who share the same learning experience. For example, a group of students, who enter the same programme of study, at the same HE provider, at the same time.



This refers to a secret or prohibited action, cooperation or conspiracy by two or more people in order to deceive or achieve an academic advantage.



In some cases, we may recommend a financial payment to a student, though usually only when other remedies are unavailable, inappropriate or do not sufficiently compensate the student. Our aim in making Recommendations is to return the student to the position they were in had any failing identified in their complaint not occurred. Any Recommendations for financial compensation represent our judgment about what we consider to be fair and reasonable in all the circumstances of an individual student's complaint.

Further information about the sort of remedies which we normally make is available on our website on our frequently asked questions page and case studies page.


Competence Standard

A competence standard refers to an academic, medical or other standard applied by or on behalf of an education provider in order to determine whether or not a student has a particular level of competence or ability, as defined under the 2010 Equality Act.


Complaint Form

This is the form that a student needs to complete so that we can consider their complaint. We must receive a student's Complaint Form within 12 months of the date of the Completion of Procedures Letter issued by the HE provider at the end of internal procedures.

For further information on completing a form, please see 'Make a complaint'.


Complaint Outcome

A Complaint Outcome is a document setting out the outcome of the OIA's review. This might include details of a settlement which the student and the HE provider have agreed, or the decision issued by a case-handler after completion of a full review of a student's complaint to the OIA.


Completion of Procedures Letter

Once a student has completed the HE provider's internal complaints or appeals procedures, and the complaint or appeal is rejected, the HE provider must issue the student with a Completion of Procedures Letter promptly, and within 28 days. This letter should set out clearly what issues have been considered, what regulations have been used and the HE provider's final decision. The letter should also make reference to the OIA. Our review of a complaint will focus on this final decision.

For further information, including Guidance on issuing Completion of Procedures Letters and the Template, please see the Completion of Procedures Letter section.



HE providers are expected to comply with our decisions and any Recommendations in full. Our experience is that compliance by HE providers is excellent. We consider non-compliance to be a very serious matter which will be reported to our Board and published in the OIA's Annual Report. Students, however, do not have to accept our decision or Recommendations.



This means existing or occurring in the same period of time.

So, for example, an HE provider may have a rule that a student must submit contemporaneous medical evidence when making a claim for mitigating or extenuating circumstances. That means that the student must get a certificate or letter from their doctor confirming that they were ill on the date of the relevant assessment, and the certificate or letter must be dated around the same date.



This term is sometimes used differently by different HE providers.

Some HE providers use the term 'deferral' to refer to a student taking a year out from their studies.

At other HE providers, the term is used when a student applies for or is granted a further opportunity to take an assessment at a later date. A deferred attempt is usually treated as a first attempt.



Discrimination is treating a person less favourably because of their characteristics than another person without those characteristics. Under the Equality Act 2010 it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on grounds of age, sex, race, disability, marital status, religion or beliefs or sexual orientation. Claims of discrimination are considered by the County Court.

The OIA can look at complaints involving discrimination, but does not act in the same way as a court. We do not investigate or make legal findings in the same manner as a court. However, we will refer to the law and guidance on discrimination to form an opinion as to good practice and to decide whether the HE provider has acted fairly.

So, for example, we might look at whether a HE provider has given adequate consideration to whether its procedures are placing a disabled student at a substantial disadvantage and, if it has not, we might recommend that it does so. However, we would not normally make a finding that the HE provider had discriminated against a student. For example, we would not be able to say that the HE provider discriminated against a student because it did not make an adjustment they had asked for. However, we might say that the HE provider had not acted reasonably or that it has not demonstrated that it properly considered its obligations under the Equality Act.


Eligible complaint

This is a complaint that we can look at under our Rules. We generally make a decision on eligibility after receiving a student's Complaint Form.

You can find further information about whether or not a complaint is eligible in our Guidance on the Rules.


Equality Act

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from various forms of discrimination relating to age, sex, race, disability, marital status, religion or beliefs or sexual orientation. These are known as protected characteristics.


Exceptional Circumstances

See 'Mitigating Circumstances'.


Final Decision

(Please note: this is applicable to complaints received prior to 9 July 2015.)

A Final Decision is issued to mark the conclusion of our review of a student’s complaint. We will not usually correspond about the merits of a complaint following the issue of a Final Decision.


Fit to Sit

Some HE providers have a ‘fit to sit’ policy, which means that if you sit an exam you are declaring yourself fit to do so. Being ‘fit’ generally means that you are feeling well and functioning effectively.


Fitness to Practise

Being fit to practise means that a person is suitably qualified and prepared, and can demonstrate appropriate skills, conduct, values and attributes, to perform a particular professional role as recognised by the relevant professional body.


Good Practice

Good practice is a working method or set of procedures that is accepted as being a good way of doing things. So, in the context of the OIA Scheme, the OIA provides good practice guidance to HE providers, setting out underlying principles and operational guidance to support HE providers in effective complaints and academic appeals processes. See, for example, the Good Practice Framework for Handling Complaints and Academic Appeals.

We may also make good practice Recommendations which, for example, ask the HE provider to take action to improve procedures, review unfair regulations or provide staff training.


Higher Education Course

Students can only complain to us about some providers if they are on a higher education course. These providers are identified on our list of members. They joined the OIA Scheme under amendments to the Higher Education Act 2004 made by the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

For complaints about event which happened on or after 1 April 2018, when our Rules came into effect, a higher education course is a course of any description mentioned in Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988 and which also meets the academic standards as they are described in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) for England, Wales and Northern Ireland at Level 4 or higher. We will normally be guided by the provider's own assessment of the level of the course(s) in question and will take into account any information provided by or to regulatory and quality assurance bodies. We will not normally carry out our own assessment of whether or not a course is 'higher education'. If there is any doubt about whether a course is higher education we will normally treat it as higher education for our purposes.

For complaints about events which happened before 1 April 2018, a higher education course is:

  • a first degree, eg BA, BSc or B.Ed
  • a Foundation Degree
  • a Higher National Diploma (HND)
  • a Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)
  • a Higher National Certificate (HNC)
  • Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE)
  • CertEd (teaching qualification in the FE sector)
  • Initial Teacher Training courses which lead to Qualified Teacher Status (in the schools sector) or the Diploma in Education and Training in the FE sector
  • Postgraduate degrees, diplomas and certificates, including doctoral degrees.

The course should be validated or awarded by an “appropriate body”, that is:

a) A body with UK degree awarding powers and on the UK Government's list of Recognised Bodies (

b) For HNC/HND qualifications, either EdExcel or the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

c) For Diploma in Education and Training qualifications in the FE sector, a recognised awarding body. A list of recognised awarding bodies can be found on the Ofqual register at

d) For Initial Teacher Training courses leading to Qualified Teacher Status (‘QTS’) in the schools sector, QTS must be awarded by the Teaching Regulation Agency (formerly NCTL)(in England) or the Education Workforce Council (in Wales).



The Higher Education Act 2004 requires that complaints referred to the student complaints scheme must be reviewed by an individual who:

(a) is independent of the parties, and

(b) is suitable to review that complaint.

The OIA is independent of universities, students and Government. The Independent Adjudicator and Chief Executive is appointed through open competition under Nolan rules.

The OIA Board has an explicit responsibility to protect the independence of the Independent Adjudicator and the Scheme.  All members of the Board have the duties of Company Directors and Charity Trustees and the majority of Directors are from outside the HE sector. The Chair of the Board and the Independent Directors are appointed through open competition under Nolan Rules. The Board sets the (compulsory) subscription rates payable by all HE providers. Board members have no involvement in the review of individual complaints.

Our staff do not review complaints involving an HE provider they may have a particular connection with. This includes providers that they attended or their children are attending, or that they have previously worked for, and extends to any other connection which may lead to a potential conflict of interests. We review this regularly and we consider the issue each time we allocate a case to a case-handler, and when Decisions are approved.


Initial Consideration

This is the first step of the process that takes place when the OIA receives a complaint. The case-handler has an initial look at the documents submitted by the student and determines whether the complaint is eligible under the Rules and may at this stage have an initial discussion with the HE provider or student (or their representative) about the case. The case-handler also requests the HE provider’s representations.


Internal Complaints or Appeals Procedure

Before bringing a complaint to the OIA, a student must normally have completed the HE provider’s internal complaints or appeals procedures to give the HE provider the chance to resolve the issue internally. This will mean that the student is unhappy with the outcome of their appeal or complaint and there is no further internal recourse available. Once internal procedures are completed, the HE provider will issue the student with a Completion of Procedures Letter. Internal complaints or appeals procedures vary from provider to provider and if a student is unsure about a HE provider’s procedures they should be able to obtain information from their students' union, the HE provider’s handbook or its website.


Interruption of Studies

See ‘Leave of Absence’.


Leave of Absence

A leave of absence refers to a break from studies taken by a student for a specified period of time. A leave of absence is normally taken by mutual prior agreement between the student and the HE provider and can be taken for a wide variety of different reasons. HE providers’ individual policies on leave of absence will vary. Leave of absence can also be known as ‘interruption of study’ or ‘suspension of study’.


Legal Proceedings

Under our Scheme Rules we cannot consider complaints where the matter is or becomes the subject of court or tribunal proceedings which have not been stayed (adjourned or put on hold). In signing our Complaint Form, a student acknowledges that they must inform us immediately if any part of the complaint is being dealt with in the courts or by another body. When a student informs us that the complaint is being dealt with by the courts or another body, we will normally suspend our review of their complaint until the legal proceedings have been stayed.



Maladministration refers to a lack of care, judgment, or honesty, in the management of something which has or is likely to have caused unfairness.



In deciding whether complaints are Justified or not, we consider whether any procedural error/irregularity or omission by the HE provider was material, that is, did what happened have a significant adverse effect on the student? For example, a student might complain that the HE provider breached its appeals procedures because it took longer than the procedures allow to consider their appeal. We would consider whether the provider’s delay affected the outcome of the appeal, or caused the student particular distress or inconvenience. If we concluded that the delay had no effect on the outcome of the appeal, and there was no evidence to suggest that the student was particularly distressed or inconvenienced by it, we are unlikely to conclude that the complaint is Justified even though there was a procedural irregularity.



In some cases when looking at a complaint from a student, a case-handler might think that it would be in the best interest of both the student and the HE provider to sit down together and try to reach an agreement to settle the complaint. Mediation can be an effective way of doing this. The mediator (an independent third party) acts to help the parties to communicate and understand each other and assists them in gaining new perspectives on the issue in dispute.

We will only refer a complaint to mediation if the student and the provider agree to it. Where we do so, the mediator will usually meet with the student and one person representing the HE provider. The HE provider will select the person it considers to be most suitable to attend the mediation, but it will inform the mediator and the student in advance of who the representative will be. Mediation is a confidential process and no formal notes or minutes are taken so that all parties feel they can speak openly.


Mitigating Circumstances

Different providers define mitigating, exceptional, extenuating or special circumstances in different ways. But in broad terms, they refer to serious or significant circumstances which are unforeseen and/or beyond a student’s control and could significantly impair their academic performance in one or more assessed activities, possibly over a short period of time. Mitigating circumstances may include medical matters, bereavement, jury service, etc. Providers normally expect the student to submit a claim for mitigating circumstances before results are published, and to provide evidence in support of their claim. Where the claim is accepted by the provider, this might result in a further attempt at an assessment at the next available opportunity, for an uncapped result.


Natural Justice

See ‘Procedural Fairness’.


Non-Academic Misconduct

This refers to any behaviour not directly related to a student’s assessments or studies but which contravenes HE provider policies relating to the treatment of staff or other students or to behaviour on the provider’s property or whilst representing the provider. Non-academic misconduct may or may not be criminal behaviour. Students’ behaviour on, or use of, social media or the internet can also be deemed non-academic misconduct if it contravenes the provider’s policies. Precisely what constitutes non-academic misconduct will vary between HE providers, as will the sanctions applied.



The definition of plagiarism varies from one HE provider to another. In general terms, plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by including it in your work without full acknowledgement. This applies to all published and unpublished material, whether it is in manuscript, printed or electronic form.


Procedural Fairness

In addition to following its own procedures correctly when it holds a hearing into allegations against a student, a HE provider has a duty to act fairly (following the principles of natural justice). A student should be made fully aware of any case against them, both parties should be heard and have the opportunity to hear what the other has said, and a student should receive copies of all information considered by the decision maker. The duty to act fairly also requires that decision makers should be free of the perception of bias.


Procedural Irregularity or Error

This refers to an inconsistency in or a variance from the prescribed set of procedures that are usually followed. If we consider there has been a procedural irregularity, we will consider whether it had a material effect on the student, that is that it had a significant adverse effect.


Professional Judgment

Professional judgment is a decision about professional standards that only an experienced professional can make. Whether you have reached the required standards to pass a practice placement or whether you are fit to practise is likely to be a matter of professional judgment, that is a matter where only the opinion of a professional is sufficient.

We cannot interfere with academic judgment and will not generally interfere with professional judgment, unless there is evidence of procedural irregularity, unfairness or bias.

Decisions about whether a student’s work contains plagiarism or whether s/he is fit to practise in a profession will normally be matters of academic or professional judgment, but that judgment must be evidence based.



This refers to formal progress through an academic programme or course, for example from one year of study to the next, meeting key academic requirements, usually referred to as Learning Outcomes.


Qualifying Institution

A higher education provider which is a "qualifying institution" is automatically a member of the OIA Scheme. "Qualifying Institution" is a term which is defined in section 11 of the Higher Education Act 2004. More information can be found in the Guidance on our Rules.



Where we consider a complaint to be Justified or Partly Justified, our decisions will usually include Recommendations. The Recommendations that we can make are wide-ranging and include Recommendations aimed at providing redress for the individual student as well as Good Practice Recommendations. The aim of our Recommendations is to return the student to the position they were in before the circumstances of their complaint occurred. Good practice Recommendations ask the HE provider to take action to improve procedures, review unfair regulations or provide staff training.

Before we confirm our Recommendations, both parties will be given the opportunity to comment on the practicality of any proposed Recommendations.



Referral of an assessment opportunity means that the student needs to repeat the assessment. This referred assessment may be treated either as a first attempt (for an uncapped mark) or as a resit (where the maximum mark available is capped at the minimum pass mark for the assessment), depending on the circumstances of the individual case and the relevant HE provider’s regulations.



While we will consider any reasonable remedy proposed by either the student or the HE provider, it is important for a student to be realistic about what they ask for. Our focus is on putting the student back in the position they would have been in had the act or omission by the HE provider not occurred, rather than on financial compensation. Often that will mean asking the HE provider to reconsider a case to decide, for example, whether a student should be readmitted on to the course or ensuring that suitable adjustments are in place to enable them to continue with their studies. Our aim is to provide practical remedies wherever possible and to help resolve a student’s concerns, not to punish a HE provider or its staff.

You can find further information in our Remedies and Redress leaflet.

You may also find it helpful to look at our website to see the sort of remedies which we normally make, and to read case studies of some of our recent decisions.



It is preferable for a student to handle their own complaint as they understand their situation better than anyone else. However, they may appoint a representative, for example a students’ union representative, provided they give us written authority. If a student does appoint a representative to deal with the complaint on their behalf, they will need to be totally confident that their representative has been thoroughly briefed, understands their wishes, can act in their best interests on the matter and will be able to keep the student fully informed throughout the process. Where a representative is appointed, we will only correspond with that person until our Final Decision is issued.



Our role is to "review" the final decision of the HE provider; it is not normally to re-investigate the complaint. During the review, the case-handler will read and consider all the documents provided by the student and the HE provider.

During the course of a review, additional information may be requested from either the student or the HE provider. The case-handler uses this information to come to a decision about whether the complaint is Justified, Partly Justified or Not Justified. The case-handler may seek opportunities to reach a settlement between the parties. At the end of the review, the case-handler issues a Complaint Outcome.


Scheme Rules

Our Rules set out the complaints which are covered by the Scheme and the time limits for submitting a complaint. There are some complaints which we cannot look at, and some complaints which we will not normally look at. The Rules also allow us discretion to terminate or suspend consideration of a complaint in certain circumstances.

Our Scheme Rules are available on our website. You may find it helpful to read our Guidance on the Rules alongside this.


This refers to the informal resolution of a complaint brought to us, whereby the complaint is resolved without the need for a full review of the complaint. A settlement opportunity may occur at any stage in our review process and is usually in full and final settlement of all the issues raised. Often a complaint can be settled on the basis that the provider offers to re-run a stage of its complaints or appeals procedures because the student, the OIA, or the provider has identified a procedural irregularity in the process it followed.

In certain circumstances, a settlement agreement may be reached in relation to only some of the issues raised by the student.

Under our Rules, a review may be concluded on the basis that the HE provider has made a reasonable offer to settle the complaint.


Special Circumstances

See ‘Mitigating Circumstances


Standard of proof

See 'Burden of proof/Standard of proof'.



This means that the Court has ordered that the legal proceedings should be suspended for a limited period.



Students and former students can complain to us about their higher education provider, where that provider is a member of the OIA Scheme. A student is someone who is or was registered at a higher education provider. If there is a doubt about whether the person making the complaint is or was a registered student, we will decide by looking at the higher education provider's regulations. Someone who is or was studying for one of the higher education provider's awards is also a student. Section 12 of the Higher Education Act 2004 says the student must be or have been "undertaking a course of study, or programme of research, leading to the grant of one of the qualifying institution's awards". Please read our Guidance on the Rules for more information.


Substantive means "having a firm basis in reality and, as such, is significant, fundamental or considerable". In the context of a complaint, this means the main or most important issues which the student is raising.


Suggestions and Observations

We will sometimes make Suggestions or Observations where we see instances where practice could be improved. These may identify failures of good practice and propose possible solutions without requiring a HE provider to report back formally on compliance, although we usually ask the HE provider to let us know what action, if any, has been taken. Suggestions and Observations are normally used where the complaint is Not Justified and/or where there has been no material disadvantage to a student as a result of the act or omission complained about.



This refers to a temporary break in a student’s studies with the intention that they re-join again. Suspension is also sometimes referred to as ‘interruption of studies’ or ‘leave of absence’. A student may seek a suspension because of external factors, such as health, disability, bereavement or additional responsibilities.

A student may be suspended by the HE provider following an allegation of misconduct or to prevent danger to the student and/or others.

Suspension may mean that the student is not permitted to access any or some of the HE provider facilities or services, and it may have an effect on student funding, tuition fee liability and immigration status.

In the context of a complaint to the OIA, we may suspend our review, which means the case is put on hold for a period of time. There are a variety of reasons for this: sometimes complainants ask us to suspend the complaint for reasons of ill-health or other issues; or sometimes we need to suspend a case to await the outcome of other proceedings within the HE provider.


Suspension of Study

See ‘Leave of Absence’.



We have the discretion to terminate our reviews, that is, to stop looking at the complaint and cease correspondence about all matters relating to it. There are a number of reasons why we might do so, for example, if the student is not responding to our correspondence, or the student or representative has behaved unacceptably. The Rules set out when we might do this. If we decide to terminate our review, we will explain to the student why we have done so.

See also “Withdrawal”.



This means making all processes used visible and presenting them in a way that is open, straightforward and comprehensible to interested parties, such as service users, HE providers and the general public.



This is a permanent end to a course of study. Withdrawal may be voluntarily sought by a student because of external factors or in order to transfer to another HE provider. A HE provider may also withdraw a student from a course of study (also called ‘exclusion from studies’ or ‘termination of studies’) due to unsatisfactory academic progress, non-attendance or for other reasons. Withdrawal may have significant effects on student funding, tuition fee liability and immigration status.

In the context of the OIA Scheme, we may refer to a student withdrawing their complaint. This is when a student voluntarily decides not to continue with their complaint to the OIA. This might be because the situation has been resolved or they have changed their mind about pursuing it. We also sometimes suggest to students that they might want to withdraw their complaint. This is usually done at the initial consideration stage if, at that time, the case-handler thinks that there is little chance that we will decide the complaint is Justified. It is entirely up to the student to decide whether to withdraw their complaint and, if they chose not to, we will continue with our review.