The coronavirus (Covid 19) situation is causing enormous disruption and a great deal of anxiety across the country and in all sectors. We are very aware that the higher education sector is being hit hard. The challenges facing providers, current and future students, and student representative bodies are profound and the impact is likely to be long-lasting.
As an independent ombuds body, we have a unique role in the higher education sector. We need to be able to make fair and impartial decisions on the complaints we see, and to help providers to improve practice so that students are better supported. The current situation does not change this, but it does change the way we go about our work. We want to be able to help providers and students to navigate their way through this situation. This means being flexible with our processes and realistic in our expectations.
The health and wellbeing of our colleagues and everyone who uses our service is our top priority. At this time perhaps more than ever it’s important to work together and to be alert to challenges others may be facing. We will try to encourage mutual understanding and cooperation between students and providers during these very difficult times.
How we will operate
We want to continue to operate as normally as possible. We think it’s important to do this because we provide a valuable service for providers and students and we believe we can still work with providers in the current context. We are fully equipped to work remotely, safely and securely and our phone lines are operating normally, although like other organisations we may be affected by staff absence.
We understand that providers are grappling with enormous challenges, both immediate and longer term, and face an uncertain future. Many people who normally work on complaints, appeals and other internal processes may be absent or redeployed during this period. This means that for many providers it may be difficult or impossible to give us the information that we ask for during our reviews.
We will still ask providers to give us information by a specified date, but we will be completely flexible and we will always be willing to give providers additional time. We ask that where possible providers tell us if they can’t respond to our requests for information.
Students may also struggle to provide information because of illness or caring responsibilities, or because they can’t access information. If students are worried that they might miss the 12-month deadline for sending us their complaint form, they should contact us so that we can help them to submit a complaint form with a few details about the complaint.
In some cases we may need to suspend our reviews because we can’t get the information we need.
We will be flexible in monitoring compliance with our Recommendations. Where we have made practical Recommendations for students that have become impossible to meet, we will try to find alternatives, in discussion with the provider and the student. We realise that implementing good practice Recommendations, such as changing regulations, may be very difficult and will be well down providers’ lists of priorities in the current context. We will extend deadlines whenever necessary.
Our approach to casework
The Briefing Note was published on 18 March 2020 in the early stages of the pandemic. It sets out what we think is good practice but we recognise that in the current context good practice may be difficult or even impossible to achieve.
Our role is to decide whether a provider has acted reasonably in all the circumstances of the case. We still expect providers to do what they can to minimise the impact of issues on their students and to respond to individual students’ concerns. But when the circumstances involve a global pandemic that is having an unprecedented impact, we will all need to be realistic about what is possible.
This means that, we might decide not to make any Recommendations even if we decide a student has a valid complaint, because there is no practical way to put things right. Or we might decide that although the student is, quite reasonably, still disappointed with the whole situation, the provider has done its very best in impossible circumstances.
The overall sector context will be important in this and we will contribute to an overall sector response if one emerges and to relevant sector developments. We will take into account relevant guidance and advice from the OfS, QAA, UUK, NUS and others, when deciding whether the provider has acted reasonably.
We will also be looking out for the students who have been more seriously affected and more disadvantaged than most, to see whether their provider has done enough to support them.
Our outreach work
Although we have had to cancel our face-to-face outreach events, we have a lot of good practice resources available, including “on-demand” content. We are continuing to offer webinars and virtual visits as a resource for anyone who has the capacity to engage with them.
We will ask providers for data and information at regular points during the year as usual, but we understand if providers are unable to deal with these requests and we will be as flexible as we can.
We will keep our data collection project open, inviting providers to give us information about their internal complaints and appeals processes at regular points during the year. But this is entirely voluntary, and we expect that most providers will not be able to give us this information this year.
We recognise that the implications of the coronavirus situation will continue to evolve over time and we will be sensitive to changing circumstances.
We will continue to engage with and listen to providers, students and their representative bodies and sector organisations, and we encourage people to talk to us if they have any concerns.