OIA publishes Annual Report for 2021

We have today (4 May) published our Annual Report for 2021.

OIA Annual Report 2021
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Adroddiad Blynyddol SDA 2021
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Our Annual Reports
Annual Report 2021

The Report includes information about:

  • The number and outcomes of complaints we received and closed
  • Trends in complaints
  • Examples of the complaints students made to us
  • How we share learning from complaints
  • How we work with others in the higher education sector
  • Information about developments in our organisation over the year.

Felicity Mitchell, Independent Adjudicator said:

“2021 was another year dominated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many students experienced disruption to their lives and to their studies, and providers worked hard to deliver learning and support whilst balancing complex considerations and risks. We received and closed more complaints than ever before and continued sharing learning from complaints through our well-received outreach programme and the information and guidance we published. We hope that our work has been helpful to students and those who support and advise them, and to providers in these very challenging times.”

Ben Elger, Chief Executive, said:

“Working with others in the higher education regulatory landscape and with student and provider representative organisations is a vital part of our work, promoting a student-focused and joined-up approach. In 2021 we worked extensively with governments and relevant organisations to contribute to wider ongoing responses to the pandemic and support understanding of our role to be clear for students. More widely we engaged with significant policy developments such as the progress in Wales towards a more integrated tertiary sector.”

Our Report in detail

Complaint numbers and outcomes

  • We received 2,763 new complaints in 2021, 6% more than in 2020 (2,604) and once again our highest ever number. In addition we received one complaint from a large group of students.
  • Complaints relating to issues arising from the coronavirus pandemic accounted for 37% of the complaints we received in 2021. These included complaints relating to the earlier stages of the pandemic as well as to students’ more recent experiences, because students have up to 12 months
  • to bring their complaint to us if they are still unhappy at the end of their provider’s internal processes.
  • Despite the high volume of cases and the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, we met most of our targets for timeliness of our processes and we closed 2,654 cases, also our highest ever number and 2% more than in 2020 (2,597).
  • In total, 27% of cases were Justified (3%), Partly Justified (9%), or settled in favour of the student (15%). This is slightly higher than in recent years, and our highest ever proportion of cases settled.
  • As well as the many practical remedies we recommended, we made Recommendations for financial remedies totalling £792,504. In addition, students received a total of £511,875 through settlement agreements we reached. The overall total financial compensation in 2021 was £1,304,379, significantly higher than in previous years. This is partly because in some cases it was more difficult to find a practical remedy due to the impact of the pandemic. The highest single amount of financial compensation was just over £68,000, and 63 students received amounts of over £5,000.

The nature of complaints

As in 2020, focus in the sector was dominated by responding to the continuing impact of coronavirus. As the pandemic entered its second year, the challenges faced by students and providers continued to evolve and this was reflected in complaints to us.

The proportion of complaints we received that were about service issues (45%) remained at the higher level we saw in 2020 (43%). Complaints in this category relate to issues such as teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities.

We saw a small further reduction in number of complaints we received about academic appeals (29% compared with 33% in 2020). This category includes complaints about academic matters such as assessments, progression and grades (including requests for additional consideration).

The number of complaints in other complaint categories remained relatively small, but collectively these categories accounted for 27% of case receipts. This is higher than in recent years, with the increase fairly evenly distributed across the categories.

  • Financial issues – 6% (5% in 2020)
  • Equality law / human rights – 5% (4% in 2020)
  • Welfare / non-course service issues – 5% (4% in 2020)
  • Disciplinary matters (academic) – 5% (4% in 2020)
  • Disciplinary matters (non-academic) – 4% (3% in 2020)
  • Fitness to practise – 2% (1% in 2020).

Sharing learning from complaints

We continued to share learning from complaints, publishing information and guidance and continuing our successful outreach programme of webinars and virtual workshops. Our programme attracted participants from student representative bodies and providers across England and Wales, and from the full range of our varied membership. We also held student discussion groups to hear directly from students about their experiences.

Case summaries

Our Report includes several case summaries which illustrate some of the kinds of complaints we saw during the year. These include:

  • A complaint by a group of students on the second cohort of a new practical-based arts MA about issues with the programme and how it had been advertised. The first cohort had also complained to us. The second cohort was also seriously affected by the pandemic and the provider had to postpone practical modules. The provider had accepted some of the issues and planned to take practical steps to resolve them, but the pandemic meant that those plans could not be implemented. We decided that the compensation offered by the provider wasn’t enough and the complaint was Partly Justified. We recommended that the provider apologise to the students, refund 50% of the tuition fees, and offer a further £6,250 for the distress and inconvenience caused by the issues raised by the group. We also made some good practice Recommendations.
  • A student who was awarded a BA when they thought they were studying for a BSc. The student felt they had been given misleading information and that getting a BA would affect their prospects for postgraduate study. The provider accepted that the pre-admission information could have been clearer but explained that the degree was correctly described on the UCAS website and in the course handbook, and offered the student £1,000 for any distress caused. It said that the BA received the same professional accreditation as the BSc and was equally valuable. We decided that the student’s complaint about the confusing information was valid, but the provider had made a reasonable offer of compensation for this, and so the complaint to us was Not Justified.
  • A student suffered a serious injury during their studies. They asked their provider for support for the ongoing, long-term impact of their injury on their studies. The provider put in place some support but did not give them any information about Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) until the following year, which meant the student did not receive all the support they needed until the final months of their course. The student was awarded a 2:2 classification for their degree and was close to the borderline for a 2:1. They argued that they would have got a 2:1 if they had received DSA support earlier. We decided their complaint was Justified. We thought that the provider ought to have told the student about DSA when they first asked for help and, if it had, the student would have received the support they needed earlier. We recommended that the provider reconsider the student’s grade profile with this in mind, which it did, and it decided to award the student a 2:1.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

Equality, diversity and inclusion continued to be an important focus this year. Our Report includes information about work we did to look at some aspects of our casework data by ethnicity and to strengthen diversity and inclusion in our organisation during the year.


Notes to Editors

  1. For further information please contact Jenn Runde, Communications Officer, mediarelations@oiahe.org.uk, 0118 959 9813.
  2. The Report will be published in English and in Welsh on our website on Wednesday 4 May.
  3. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) is the independent student complaints ombuds for higher education in England and Wales. It is the designated operator of the student complaints’ scheme under the Higher Education Act 2004.
  4. Our Scheme is free to students and has been designed to be accessible to all students, without the need for legal representation.
  5. We have a wide remit to review student complaints about higher education providers in England and Wales, as set out in the Rules of our Scheme.