Summary

The OIA's Annual Report has revealed a significant increase in the number of complaints that it handled in the last year. For the first time, and as part of a move toward publishing all OIA formal decisions, the OIA has also named two universities which have not fully complied with the OIA's recommendations.

Background

Since 2005, when it became responsible for handling student complaints, the OIA has published periodic “case studies” based on certain of its Final Decisions, to assist HEIs in developing their own best practice. In addition, it publishes an annual report of its work over the course of the year, and recommendations to HEIs arising from commonly-seen complaints.

Increase in the number of complaints

In 2010, a total of 1,341 complaints were received. This represents a 33% increase on the previous year. While this number is relatively small in comparison to the total student population, it still represents a significant increase. These figures suggest that one in seven students who have exhausted their HEI's internal grievance procedures will bring their case to the OIA.

This increase may be due in part to a greater awareness of the powers of the OIA, but is also likely to be attributed to more students being genuinely dissatisfied with the way that HEIs have handled their complaints. Students are also bringing a broader and more complex array of complaints. The OIA reports that, this year, it has dealt with complaints about the alleged mishandling of theft and bullying accusations and etiquette on distance learning programmes, as well as the more conventional complaints.

The number of complaints categorised as 'justified’ and ‘partly justified' represent only 20% of overall complaints. However, this represents an increase from the previous year’s figure of 14%. In total, 71% of complaints referred to the OIA were found to be either not justified, or ineligible.

Emphasis on early resolution

The increase in the number of complaints has resulted in the average complaint handling time increasing to over 6 months. To balance this, the OIA has announced a new approach to handling cases. Where suitable, it will seek to resolve cases at an early stage by increased contact and mediation between the OIA and HEI. The figures show that, in the last year, 9% of cases were settled or resolved other than by the OIA issuing Final Decisions.

Naming universities

The 2010 Annual Report published the names of two universities  which the OIA considered had not complied fully with Recommendations contained within one or more Formal Decisions of the OIA, in accordance with its Scheme Rules. The OIA states that, by doing so, it is not 'naming and shaming' the HEIs, and, although the 2010 Annual Report takes pains to explain how the two HEIs have worked with the OIA to resolve the outstanding issues, HEIs will be concerned that being identified in this way may lead to negative publicity.

It is therefore important that HEIs understand and implement any Recommendations made by the OIA promptly, in the event of a Formal Decision being handed down. The HEI should take the opportunity it is given at the Draft Decision stage to comment on the practicalities of Recommendations. The HEI should also seek clarification from the OIA where it is unclear what is expected of it. The OIA has stated that it will be sensitive to reasonable requests for extensions to timescales.

The OIA has stated that it intends to look into whether it currently has sufficient powers to deal with non-compliance. This indicates that it is likely to take a more robust approach to its role as Regulator of HEIs.

Publication of Formal Decisions

The OIA also consulted on whether it ought to publish its Final Decisions, to improve transparency. Broadly, HEIs were against the proposal, whereas bodies representing the interests of students were in favour. The conclusion, following consultation, was that a limited number of summaries of Formal Decisions, including not justified decisions, should be published in an anonymised form (ie the complainant and staff should not be named), where it is in the public interest to do so. The publication of a Formal Decision will be in the public interest if:

  • it is important to highlight an act or omission of a University;
  • it is important to highlight the impact of the case on an individual complainant or group of complainants;
  • the decision will increase understanding and knowledge of good practice among universities, students unions and students; or
  • the Decision will ensure public confidence in the independence of the OIA.

Although the OIA is aware of the opposition of HEIs to the move toward publication of Formal Decisions, it hopes that doing so may lead to greater levels of consistency in decision making within HEIs. It is also likely to encourage the early resolution of complaints without the OIA having to issue Final Decisions. The OIA expects that arrangements for the publication of Formal Decisions will be in place from 1 January 2012.