OIA statement in response to the impact of the coronavirus situation on the new academic year (2020-21)

We hope it will be helpful to draw together here some points from our guidance for providers and students that are particularly pertinent at the moment, and to give an update on what we have seen so far in complaints arising from the coronavirus situation.

Stack of newspapers

It has been a hugely challenging start to the new academic year for both students and higher education providers. In June we published a briefing note on our approach to complaints arising from the effects of coronavirus, and we continue to work with governments and sector bodies that have also published guidance. We hope it will be helpful to draw together here some points from our guidance for providers and students that are particularly pertinent at the moment, and to give an update on what we have seen so far in complaints arising from the coronavirus situation.

Some thoughts for providers

Even in these challenging times, providers need to deliver teaching and learning opportunities and other services that are consistent with students’ reasonable expectations. What students can reasonably expect, and what providers can reasonably be expected to deliver, changes and evolves as circumstances change and evolve and we are witnessing this right now.

Providers need to try to deliver something at least broadly equivalent to what was promised and to ensure that learning outcomes can be met. Where providers find that they can’t do this, they will need to consider how to put that right. A blanket refusal to consider tuition fee refunds in any circumstances is not reasonable. There may be groups of students that are particularly affected, and providers should take steps to identify those groups and address their issues. Providers also need to consider concerns raised by students about their individual circumstances.

Student welfare is a significant concern in the current circumstances. We know that a lot is being done to support students. It is particularly important that providers are alert to students who may be more vulnerable, for example those with mental health difficulties or disabilities, or those without family support, and take steps to support them effectively.

Many students are following public health guidance, but as in any part of society, there are some who aren’t. Providers will need to address this. Existing disciplinary procedures should normally be broad enough to cover the kinds of issues that might arise. It is important that both the process followed and the outcome are reasonable and fair, and any penalty applied is proportionate.

What can students do?

It is very important that students talk to their provider about their concerns as soon as possible, as many issues can be resolved informally. Students’ unions and student representative bodies can often be a valuable source of advice. If concerns can’t be resolved informally, the student should make a complaint using their provider’s complaints processes. We expect students to engage with their provider’s internal complaints process before they bring a complaint to us because it is better for everyone if the provider can put things right for the student directly.

Students can find further guidance in our FAQs for students.

Where do we come in?

If the student is still unhappy after the provider has considered their concerns then they can complain to us and we will consider their concerns independently and impartially. It is clearly important that everyone is realistic about what is possible in the context of the pandemic and public health restrictions. But it is equally important that students are treated fairly. As an ombuds body we look at what the provider has done, or not done, whether it has followed fair procedures, and whether it has acted reasonably in all the circumstances.

Students are unsurprisingly concerned about tuition fees in the current context. Our FAQs for students includes some information about when a partial tuition fee refund may or may not be appropriate.

There is always a time lag between an issue which gives rise to a complaint occurring and a complaint about it reaching us. We have to date (end September 2020) received around 120 complaints relating to coronavirus, all of which relate to the initial lockdown period (from March 2020 onwards). Some of these were brought to us too early, because the student had not raised their concerns through their provider’s procedures. In some cases, the provider had not engaged with the student’s concerns and we have told the provider to consider them. The complaints we are currently looking at are mostly about disruption to teaching. We are considering whether the provider has done enough to address the student’s concerns, whether the students have had the opportunity to meet their learning outcomes, and whether the provider has delivered what is broadly equivalent to their usual arrangements. We plan to publish some case summaries to illustrate our approach as soon as we can.

Our response to the coronavirus situation