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.
Academic judgment is not any judgment made by an academic; it is a judgment that is made about a matter where the opinion of an academic expert is essential. So for example a judgment about marks awarded, degree classification, research methodology, whether feedback is correct or adequate, and the content or outcomes of a course will normally involve academic judgment.
We consider that the following areas do not involve academic judgment: decisions about the fairness of procedures and whether they have been correctly interpreted and applied, how a higher education provider has communicated with the student, whether an academic has expressed an opinion outside the areas of their academic competence, what the facts of a complaint are and the way evidence has been considered, and whether there is evidence of bias or maladministration.
Academic misconduct is any action by a student which gives or has the potential to give an unfair advantage in an examination or assessment, or might help someone else to gain an unfair advantage, or any activity likely to undermine the integrity essential to scholarship and research.
This refers to any prohibited means used to receive course credit, a higher grade, or to avoid a lower grade. Some examples of academic misconduct are:
- taking a copy of another student’s work without their permission;
- falsifying data, evidence or experimental results;
- contract cheating;
- arranging for someone to impersonate a student by sitting their examination;
- cheating in examinations (or other formal assessment), including possession of unauthorised material or technology during an examination, and attempting to access unseen assessment materials in advance of an examination;
- submitting fraudulent mitigating circumstances claims or falsifying evidence in support of mitigating circumstances claims;
- breaches of research and ethics policies.
Individual 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 rigour in research, etc.
This refers to a student's standing with a provider, for example whether they are a registered student, if they have completed their studies, are suspended or withdrawn/terminated.
This is the process of a student applying for, and gaining entry to, a course (programme of study). All providers have their own processes in place which govern decisions about the selection and entry of students.
We do not cover complaints that relate to a student's admission to a 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.
The "burden of proof" determines whose 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".
We normally expect a student to prove their case on the balance of probabilities.
The purpose of the Casework Quality Group (CQG) is to ensure that we produce consistent and reasonable decisions, which provide a fair, balanced and proportionate response to the complaint.
The CQG monitors our processes to ensure that they operate fairly and consistently, and capture key information for external and internal communication.
The CQG is made up of managers from our casework teams and the Independent Adjudicator.
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 provider, at the same time.
Collusion is working with someone else on an assessment which should to be the student’s own work.
In some cases, we may recommend a financial payment, or compensation, 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 before the circumstances of their complaint. 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.
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.
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 provider at the end of internal procedures.
For further information on completing a form, please see 'How to complain to us'.
A Complaint Outcome is a document explaining the outcome of our review. It sets out our decision on the complaint and the reasons for it, or it might include details of a settlement which the student and the provider have agreed.
Completion of Procedures Letter
Once a student has completed the provider's internal complaints or appeals procedures, and there is no further avenue for the student within the provider, the provider will issue the student with a Completion of Procedures Letter as soon as possible, and within 28 days. This letter should set out clearly what issues have been considered, what regulations have been used and the provider's final decision. The letter should also tell the student that they can complaint to us, and the deadline for doing so. 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.
Providers are expected to comply with our decisions and any Recommendations in full, and almost always do. When a provider doesn’t comply we take it very seriously and we will report it to our Board and publish information about it in our Annual Report.
Students do not have to accept our decision or Recommendations.
This term is sometimes used differently by different providers.
Some providers use the term "deferral" to refer to a student taking a year out from their studies.
At other providers, the term is used when a student applies for or is given 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.
We can look at complaints involving discrimination, but we do not act in the same way as a court. We do not investigate in the same way as a court, or try to guess what a court might decide in the same case. We do not make findings that a provider has discriminated against a student. However, we refer to the law and guidance on discrimination to reach a view about what is good practice and to decide whether the provider has acted fairly.
In the context of disability discrimination, for example, this means that we will look at whether a provider has properly considered whether its procedures are putting a disabled student at a substantial disadvantage and, if it has not, we might recommend that it does so. Or if a provider did not make an adjustment the student had reasonably asked for, we might say that the provider had not acted reasonably or that it had not shown that it properly considered its responsibilities under the Equality Act. We would stop short of saying that the provider had discriminated against the student.
This is a complaint that we can look at under our Rules.
You can find further information about whether or not a complaint is eligible in our Guidance on the Rules.
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".
See "mitigating circumstances".
Some providers have a "fit to sit" policy, which means that if a student sits an exam they are declaring that they are 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 is a working method or set of procedures that is accepted as being a good way of doing things. We provide good practice guidance to providers, setting out principles and operational guidance to support 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 provider to take action to improve procedures, review unfair regulations or provide staff training.
Students can only complain to us about some providers if they are or were on a higher education course. These providers are identified on our list of members.
The definition of HE under our current Rules (April 2018) is broad. Any courses equivalent to Level 4 or higher of the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) will normally be HE for our purposes. This includes some professional courses at Level 4 and above. Sometimes these qualifications are offered at different Levels, for example 2-4. Some providers may group qualifications offered at multiple levels under its (further education) FE or adult education provision. However, it is important that these providers ensure that all students studying at Level 4 or above are properly signposted to us and that Completion of Procedures Letters are issued in line with our published guidance. Information about our Scheme should also be included within the procedures that HE students have access to.
The term “student” can include trainees and apprentices. For example, a trainee teacher at a School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) provider can complain to us about matters which the SCITT is responsible for. If they are studying for a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) or Masters-level credits, they may also be able to complain about the higher education provider which awards the PGCE or credits.
An apprenticeship is a job, so someone on a higher education apprenticeship will be employed as an apprentice but will also be a “student”. If the apprenticeship involves a higher education qualification which is delivered, awarded or assessed by a higher education provider, then the apprentice can complain about what the higher education provider has done.
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 higher education providers, students and Governments.
Our Board has an explicit responsibility to protect the independence of the Independent Adjudicator and the student complaint scheme. Board members have no involvement in the review of individual complaints.
Our staff do not review complaints involving a provider they may have a particular connection with. This includes providers that they attended or a close family member is attending, or that they have previously worked for, and extends to any other connection which may lead to a potential conflict of interest. We review this regularly and we consider the issue each time we allocate a case to a case-handler.
This is the first step of our process. The case-handler has a first look at the documents submitted to us and decides whether the complaint is something we can look at under our Rules. They may at this stage have an initial discussion with the provider or student (or their representative) about the case. The case-handler also asks the provider for its representations.
Internal complaints or appeals procedure
Before bringing a complaint to us, a student must normally have completed the provider’s internal complaints or appeals procedures to give the provider the chance to resolve the issue internally. Once internal procedures are completed, the provider will give the student a Completion of Procedures Letter. Internal complaints or appeals procedures vary from provider to provider Information about a provider’s procedures is usually available on the provider’s website or from the student organisation.
Interruption of studies
See "leave of absence".
A Large Group Complaint is a complaint or series of related complaints brought by a significant number of students at a provider about the same event/s or issue/s. We review Large Group Complaints under our additional Rules for Large Group Complaints.
A leave of absence refers to a break from studies a student takes for a specified period of time. A leave of absence is normally agreed between the student and the provider in advance and can be taken for a wide variety of different reasons. Providers’ individual policies on leave of absence will vary. Leave of absence can also be known as "interruption of studies" or "suspension of study".
Under our Rules we can't review a complaint about something which has already been the subject of legal proceedings in a court or tribunal unless those proceedings have been put on hold. In signing our Complaint Form, a student agrees to tell us immediately if any part of the complaint is being dealt with in the courts or by another body. When a student tells 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 put on hold.
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 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 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 helps them to get 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 provider. The provider will select the person it considers to be most suitable to attend the mediation, and it will tell 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.
Different providers define mitigating, exceptional, extenuating or special circumstances in different ways. Broadly, the terms refer to serious or significant circumstances which are unforeseen and 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.
See "procedural fairness".
This refers to any behaviour not directly related to a student’s assessments or studies but which contravenes the provider’s policies relating to the treatment of staff or other students or to behaviour on or near 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 providers, as will the sanctions applied.
Any body in England or Wales which is not a “qualifying institution” may apply to become a member of our Scheme if it meets our conditions for joining.
The definition of plagiarism varies from one 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.
Providers have a duty to act fairly as well as to follow their own procedures correctly. Fair procedures follow the principles of natural justice: decision makers must come to matters without bias or a reasonable perception of bias; each party must have a fair hearing; the process must be completed without delay; and decision makers must make reasonable decisions and give reasons for those decisions.
Procedural irregularity or error
This means that a provider has not followed its procedures or has not applied them consistently. If we decide there has been a procedural irregularity, we will look at whether that had a significant adverse effect on the student.
Professional judgment is a decision about professional standards that only an experienced professional can make. Whether a student has reached the required standards to pass a practice placement or whether they are fit to practise is likely to be a matter of professional judgment.
We will usually give great weight to professional judgment but we will look at whether that judgment is based on good evidence, whether the correct procedures have been followed, and whether the decision reached is fair and unbiased.
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.
A higher education provider which is a "qualifying institution" is automatically a member of the OIA. "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 decide that a complaint is Justified or Partly Justified, we will normally make Recommendations. The Recommendations that we can make are wide-ranging. Some aim to put things right for the individual student, that is to return the student to the position they were in before the circumstances of their complaint occurred. We also make Good Practice Recommendations. These ask the provider to take action to improve its processes or procedures, change unfair regulations or provide staff training.
The student and the provider will be given the opportunity to comment on the practicality of the Recommendations we are proposing before we confirm them.
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 provider’s regulations.
We will consider any reasonable remedy proposed by either the student or the provider. But it is important for the 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 if the events giving rise to the complaint had not happened. Often that will mean asking the 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 provider or its staff.
More information about remedies and redress can be found in the section called “Putting things right”. 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.
Usually, the student will be the best person to make a complaint because they understand their situation better than anyone else. But they can ask someone else to represent them, for example a students’ union representative. Our processes are informal, so it is not usually necessary to use a lawyer.
The student will need to give us their permission to communicate with their representative. They also need to make sure that the representative:
- properly understands their complaint;
- knows what outcome they want;
- will act in their best interests; and
- will keep them fully informed throughout the process.
If a student appoints a representative, we will normally only communicate with that person (rather than with the student as well).
Our role is to review the provider's final decision; 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 provider.
During our review, we may ask for more information from either the student or the 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 try to reach a settlement between the student and the provider. At the end of the review, the case-handler issues a Complaint Outcome.
Our Rules set out how our Scheme works, who can complain, what we can and can’t look at, how we review complaints and what higher education providers must do
You may find it helpful to read our Guidance on the Rules alongside the Rules.
Settlement is the informal resolution of a complaint brought to us. This means that the complaint is resolved without the need for a full review. We may try to settle a complaint at any stage in our review process. Sometimes we will invite the higher education provider to make an offer to the student. The offer will normally be "in full and final settlement" of all the issues raised, which means that the student would not be able to take further action in relation to the same issues.
In certain circumstances, a settlement agreement may be reached in relation to only some of the issues raised by the student.
If the provider makes what we consider to be a reasonable offer to settle the complaint and the student does not accept it, we may decide to terminate our review, or decide that the complaint is Not Justified, on the basis that the provider has made a reasonable offer to settle the complaint.
See "mitigating circumstances"
Standard of proof
This means that a Court has ordered that legal proceedings should be put on hold for a limited period.
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. Students and former students can complain to us about their higher education provider, where that provider is a member of the OIA. Please read our Guidance on the Rules for more information.
If we have decided that the complaint (or part of it) is Not Justified, we may make suggestions to the higher education provider to improve its processes, review its regulations, or to repeat an offer it has made to the student. Our suggestions may identify failures of good practice and propose possible solutions without requiring a provider to report back formally on compliance, although we usually ask the provider to let us know what action, if any, has been taken.
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 ask for a suspension because of issues, such as health, disability, bereavement or additional responsibilities.
A student may be suspended by the 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 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 can be various reasons for this: sometimes a student asks us to suspend the complaint for reasons of ill-health or other issues, or sometimes we need to suspend a case to wait for the outcome of other proceedings within the provider.
Suspension of study
See "leave of absence".
Our Rules allow us to terminate a review, that is, to stop looking at the complaint and corresponding about it, in some circumstances. For example, we may end our review if the student is not responding to our correspondence, or the student or representative has behaved in a way that is likely to have a negative effect on our staff or our work. 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”.
If a higher education provider stops being a qualifying institution, for example because it stops running higher education courses, it will carry on being a member of the OIA Scheme for a period of 12 months after it stopped being a qualifying institution. We can't look at a complaint about a transitional institution unless the complaint relates to events which occurred before the institution became a transitional institution. For more information please see our Guidance on the Rules.
This is a permanent end to a course of study. A student may ask to withdraw, for example if their personal circumstances have changed, or to transfer to another provider. A 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 our processes, a student may withdraw a complaint they have made to us. This is when a student voluntarily decides not to continue with their complaint to us. This might be because the situation has been resolved or they have changed their mind about pursuing it.
We 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.