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University Complaints

Which universities have issued the most and the fewest formal letters in response to student complaints?

Things sometimes go wrong, even in the best organisations. You need to know which universities are best at resolving disputes internally.

  • After all, you have thought hard about what and where to study and are ready to sign up for a loan to cover your tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.

In England and Wales, complaints that cannot be resolved through a university’s internal procedure can be submitted to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

  • The OIA will examine a complaint and look at the way the university has sought to resolve the issue.
  • But the process takes time and you (typically) have only three years of undergraduate study.

What you want to know is how effectively the university of your choice handles your complaint before the OIA becomes involved.

  • The OIA monitors the flow of complaints and, each year, writes to each university in England and Wales to alert them to their record. The numbers of complaints that reach the OIA are small in number but range widely.
  • The majority are not eligible or not justified, with wholly or partly justified making up some 15% of the total.

OIA definitions of complaint outcomes

  • Not eligible A complaint that can not be reviewed by the OIA under their rules.
  • Settled When a complaint has been received by the OIA, the university has been notified, and parties to the complaint reach an agreed outcome before the OIA issue a final decision.
  • Justified, partly justified, not justified The OIA decides whether a complaint is justified, partly justified or not justified at the end of their review process.
  • Withdrawn If the complainant asks that the OIA stop reviewing the complaint, or where the complainant fails to participate in the OIA's process.
 Outcome of complaints

Outcome of complaints (source: OIA Annual Report 2014)

Complaints are divided into the following categories

  • Academic status Marks, progression between years, and final decisions on degree classification or postgraduate qualification.
  • Service issues Complaints that the course or facilities did not meet expectations set out in the prospectus, concerns about resources and issues relating to postgraduate supervision.
  • Financial issues Disputes over fees charged, for example.
  • Academic misconduct, plagiarism and cheating
  • Discrimination and human rights
  • Non-academic disciplinary matters
  • Welfare and accommodation
  • Unknown
 Complaints by category
Complaints by category 2014 (source: OIA Annual Report 2014)
  • Almost 60% of complaints came from undergraduates, and two-thirds are from home students.

How have we looked at student complaints?

The Complete University Guide has examined the record of universities in resolving complaints before they reach the stage of potential referral to the OIA.

  • It analysed the OIA's annual letters to establish the universities with the most – and the least – Completion of Procedure letters issued at the end of the internal processes.
  • We have taken the number of Completion of Procedures (CoP) Letters issued by universities and recorded by the OIA.
  • The CoP letters indicate the number of complaints that have reached the end of universities' internal procedures. This includes complaints that have been resolved to the satisfaction of the student as well as those that have not.
  • The number of CoP letters needs to be seen in the wider context of complaints and appeals that are resolved or dropped by the student at an earlier stage. This information may be reported at institutional level but is not collected centrally.
  • To complete our table, the number of letters is then totalled over a three-year period and universities ranked by the number of letters per 1,000 students.
  • We have, for the first time in this table, compared the outcomes for the three years 2012–14 with the preceding three-year period (2011–13). This smooths out the peaks and troughs that might be evident from comparing single years.

Some complaints may be frivolous, or based on a misunderstanding, or even malicious.

  • But it is reasonable to assume that the proportion of complaints without foundation is fairly constant across the sector.
  • And a good quality internal complaints procedure should be capable of resolving unfounded complaints.

Scotland

In Scotland, there is no agency similar to the OIA.

  • Complaints about further and higher education are made to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, but that office does not collect data on the number of unresolved complaints at university level.
  • Complaints about Scottish further and higher education institutions amount to 3% of its workload with 159 in 2014–15 compared with 3,422 against local authorities and health services.
  • The Ombudsman upheld 34% of cases in further and higher education during 2014–15.
  • Read about how to make a formal complaint in Scotland.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, complaints that cannot be resolved through universities’ internal disputes procedures may be referred to the Board of Visitors for the individual university but only on grounds of new evidence or of a procedural irregularity in the internal process.

  • From 1 October 2016 Northern Irish universities will come under the jurisdicition of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPS) with respect to student complaints.
  • There are no centralised data for Northern Ireland.
  • Read about how to make a complaint in Northern Ireland.