Complaints about college courses were at their highest level ever in 2021, with criticism targeting online exams and students not getting the experience they expected.
The Office of the Independent Higher Education Adjudicator (OIA) received 2,763 student complaints in 2021, a 6% increase over 2020 levels.
In a new report, the OIA said that “some students found that they were not getting the learning experiences they reasonably expected” and that they were affected by “the cumulative impact of the pandemic and industrial action”.
It also found that some students had struggled with technology, “particularly in online timed exams”, with some struggling to operate the technology, while for others poor typing skills had affected their performance.
The overall financial compensation awarded to students in 2021 was £1,304,379, “significantly higher than in previous years”.
The OIA said this was partly because the impact of the pandemic made it difficult to find practical solutions to complaints.
The highest single amount of financial compensation was just over £68,000, while 63 students received compensation of over £5,000.
The proportion of complaints related in part to the pandemic has increased since 2020, representing 37% of complaints received, compared to 12% in 2020.
At English and Welsh universities, 45% of complaints in 2021 were about ‘service issues’ such as teaching or course delivery, while 29% were about academic appeals, down slightly from 33% in 2020 .
In total, 27% of complaints were considered “justified”.
In one case, second-year students of a Masters in Practical Arts complained about their program and the way it was advertised because their practical modules were put on hold during the pandemic.
The OIA recommended that students be reimbursed 50% of course fees and offered an additional £6,250 for the inconvenience they had suffered.
Lack of hands-on learning
Students “also complained about lack of access to labs, canceled or changed projects, internships and study abroad opportunities.”
Doctoral and postgraduate students were over-represented in complaints, with 45% of complaints coming from these students despite making up 27% of the English and Welsh student population.
The OIA said this could be due to the “substantial personal and financial investment” postgraduate students make in their courses, which leads to increased pressure on them to succeed.
Independent arbitrator Felicity Mitchell said: “2021 has been another year dominated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Many students have experienced disruptions in their lives and studies, and providers have worked hard to provide learning and support while balancing complex considerations and risks.”
She added that the OIA had both received and closed more complaints than before and that she hoped the work had been helpful to students and universities in “these very difficult times”.