This casework note sets out some of the issues we see in complaints from postgraduate students, and identifies some areas of good practice. We have also published some case summaries to illustrate some of the complaints we see from postgraduate students.

Postgraduate students are consistently overrepresented in complaints to us. A significant proportion of the postgraduate students who complain to us are international students, and as such can face additional challenges. There are some differences in the complaints we see from taught postgraduate students and postgraduate research students.

Taught postgraduate students

The complaints we receive from taught postgraduate students often have similarities to the complaints we receive from undergraduate students. A modular taught postgraduate course has many of the same causes for complaint, in terms of how teaching, learning and assessment opportunities are delivered. Opportunities for re-assessment and requests for additional consideration of personal circumstances are often considered under the same or similar processes. 

One-year courses

However, many taught postgraduate students are studying on one-year courses. This can mean that if things go wrong, opportunities to put things right for them at a later point in their studies can be more limited. Options to change pathway or to flex between full- and part-time studies may not be available. Any disruption to the delivery of a course is likely to be more keenly felt. Students who are unable to engage in their studies even for a short period may find it difficult to catch up. Where there are delays in providers’ internal procedures the impact may be more significant because practical remedies may no longer be possible or meaningful once the student’s studies have come to an end. International students may be constrained by the length or conditions of their visas, which can present additional challenges if students need to re-sit or interrupt their studies.

A shorter course duration means that students are under pressure to understand what is expected of them very quickly. In the complaints we see, students often describe feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to absorb during their induction period. We also see complaints where students have missed the induction period, often due to issues with international visas outside the student’s or provider’s control. It is important that the information that is delivered to students at the beginning of their studies is available throughout the rest of their course. It is good practice to remind students periodically about how they can seek support and raise concerns.

Postgraduate regulations

Providers often have higher expectations of postgraduate students around good academic practice and will typically apply more severe sanctions if their academic conduct regulations have been breached. Other academic regulations may also be different. For example, postgraduate students may have fewer re-assessment opportunities if they don’t pass the first time. It is important for providers to clearly set out any differences in the postgraduate context, and this is particularly helpful for international students who may have completed their undergraduate studies elsewhere and be less familiar with the UK higher education system.

Postgraduate research students


There are some issues that usually only affect postgraduate research students, for example issues with the supervisory relationship. The complaints we see show the value that postgraduate students place on regular contact with their supervisory team and the importance of clear, constructive feedback. Concerns about the standard and quality of supervision, the level of feedback received, or a breakdown in the supervisory relationship feature in complaints to us. Sometimes these complaints arise because the student had different expectations to their provider about the type and level of supervisory support they could reasonably expect, or about the level of independence and autonomy expected of a research student. It’s good practice to clarify expectations early on about:

  • How the supervisory relationship will work, including the frequency of supervisory meetings.
  • What the supervisor’s responsibilities are.
  • What the student’s responsibilities are, what support and feedback they can expect and how much autonomy is expected of them.
  • What progression milestones the student needs to meet, and any deadlines that may apply.

Access to specialist resources and expertise

The learning experience of postgraduate research students can also depend on access to specialist resources and equipment to facilitate their research, or the availability of an individual with particular knowledge or expertise to act as their supervisor. This means that these students can experience significant difficulties if key staff are absent or if the availability of resources is disrupted. It is good practice for providers to proactively identify any students that may be affected by known issues or disruptions, and to work to identify suitable alternative arrangements that enable the student to continue with their research. In exceptional circumstances, for example where specialist equipment or relevant subject expertise no longer exists within the provider, it may be appropriate to assist the student in transferring to another provider to complete their studies.

Barriers to raising concerns

Unlike taught courses, research programmes may not have frequent assessment points and this means students may not find it easy to identify when to raise a concern or personal difficulty. It is often easier to deal with concerns or circumstances that may be affecting the student’s performance as soon as they arise, when it’s more likely to be possible to identify opportunities for support, early resolution and/or practical remedies before the issues escalate. It is important to remind postgraduate students about how they can explore any concerns informally.

In complaints to us, postgraduate students have often waited until the end of their studies to raise concerns about the supervision they received. Sometimes concerns about supervision only emerge when there is a disagreement between the supervisory team and examiners about a student’s work. But sometimes the student has concerns but was worried about raising them while the supervisory relationship was ongoing. There is an imbalance of power in the student/supervisor relationship, and students are often anxious about the consequences of raising a complaint. For example, the student may be concerned about the impact on their future career prospects within an academic discipline. It is good practice to give students assurances that concerns can be raised safely. Many providers have a named contact for postgraduate research students, normally an individual able to offer advice on processes and/or pastoral support to students outside of the supervisory relationship. Some providers have also developed mediation or conciliation arrangements that students can access, which can provide a useful neutral space to explore and resolve concerns. Depending on the nature of the concerns raised by the student, the provider may need to consider making alternative or interim supervision arrangements while it investigates.

Postgraduate students may be sponsored by an employer or government agency.  Students tell us that they were reluctant to raise concerns or let the provider know when they were experiencing circumstances that were affecting their performance or engagement because they were worried about the impact on their sponsorship. It can be helpful to signpost students to independent advice about these issues.

Sometimes the postgraduate research students who bring complaints to us have been registered with their provider for a number of years. They may have needed to interrupt their studies, change to a part-time mode of study, or make corrections to their work. Their circumstances may have changed quite significantly during this time. It’s important that providers think about how they can make sure students’ knowledge of key policies or procedures remains up to date as they progress through their studies. 

Research ethics and intellectual property 

We see a small number of complaints about research ethics and intellectual property. For example, complaints that the student’s supervisor has published ideas from joint research as their own without acknowledging the student’s contributions, or concerns that the supervisor has plagiarised the student’s work. It is good practice for providers to develop clear and fair policies and procedures around intellectual property and research ethics for both students and staff, particularly where work may be co-produced between a student and their supervisor. Procedures should be easy for students to find and should include a clear route for the student to raise any concerns about their intellectual property.      


Postgraduate students may also be employed by their provider, in pastoral, teaching and research roles. Under the Rules of our Scheme, we can’t consider complaints about a student’s employment. But whether an issue is about something that affects an individual as a student or an employee isn’t always clear cut. It’s important that providers properly think through and set out any implications for the student if their employment circumstances change, and vice versa. For example, is a postgraduate research student’s contract as a teaching assistant conditional on them making satisfactory academic progress? Can they continue to be employed if they need to interrupt their studies for any reason?

Advice and support

We sometimes hear feedback during our outreach that postgraduate students may feel that the student representative body at their provider, for example a Students’ Union or Guild, “isn’t for them”. But many student representative bodies are able to offer support and guidance to postgraduate students and some have advisors or officers with specialisms in this area. It’s important that students have confidence that there is a source of advice that understands the kind of issues they may be facing, so it may be useful for providers to work with any student representative body to understand what support and guidance is available and explore how this can be effectively signposted to.