University students in England and Wales have made a record number of complaints to the higher education watchdog, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), in 2022, with concerns being raised over “increasing levels of distress among students who are struggling to cope”. The OIA received 2,850 complaints last year, a 3% increase on the previous year, and the highest number of complaints it has ever received, with financial compensation totalling over £1m.

The OIA only hears appeals from students if they have exhausted their institution’s internal procedures and are still dissatisfied. The annual report for 2022 indicates that 25% of complaints were either justified, partly justified, or settled in favour of the student.

There was a significant increase in the proportion of complaints related to academic appeals of assessments and grades, up from 29% in 2021 to 38% in 2022, while complaints about teaching, course delivery and supervision fell from 45% to 38%. The OIA believes this change in the caseload reflects the end of the “no detriment” or safety-net policies that had been in place during the pandemic and had resulted in fewer appeals, as well as a reduction in the number of complaints related to Covid-19 disruption.

However, the watchdog did conclude its handling of complaints from a group of more than 400 art students at a single provider about the disruption caused by Covid, which were found to be partly justified. These students received about £640,000 in compensation, but the details do not form part of the overall 2022 data.

Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator, expressed concern about “increasing levels of distress among students who are struggling to cope”. She explained that it had been another difficult year for students and universities, with the cost of living crisis and strikes, and that “the pressures on providers make it more difficult for them to support students effectively”.

Examples of student complaints included one from a healthcare student who had a mental health condition and was unable to start their second placement on time, leading to them dropping out. The university was found to have failed to adequately support the student, and they were awarded a partial refund of tuition fees and compensation.

The OIA also recommended compensation for a group of students on a distance learning course who complained that the course did not live up to their expectations, based on the marketing materials. There was also an increase in complaints related to harassment and sexual misconduct, although numbers remained small.

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Chloe Field, the vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said that “students are at breaking point, with the cost of living crisis and spiralling rents pushing many over the edge. It is no surprise the OIA has received a record number of complaints”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education commented that “whilst complaints have increased, it is good to see that the OIA is working to resolve these issues, ensuring that more complaints were closed than ever before in the last year”.

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