Our Sector: Gimme Gimme Gimme a student perspective on the OIA

In which Sophie Williams, CEO at Worcester and Board member at OIA introduces her role

One of the most powerful things that Students’ Unions can do is help students with their complaints. Even the most benevolent HEI will defend itself when in a dispute with a student- so SUs that play an active role in supporting students with complaints really help to tip the balance.

Not so long ago, students wanting external help with a complaint had a labyrinthine set of procedures to go through, and in older Universities had to appeal to a person called “The Visitor”- which in some cases was the Queen! It won’t surprise you to learn that these processes were often viewed as fruitless by students.

But since 2004’s Higher Education Act students have been able to appeal to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA)- a company that handles students’ complaints against universities within England and Wales. The OIA does not investigate the merits of the original complaint, which must be done by a court. It, however, reviews if the higher education institution followed their own procedures. Its remit is limited to those complaints that have first been taken through the procedures of a higher education institution’s own internal system without reaching a satisfactory conclusion in the view of the complainant.

I became an Independent Director on the Board of the OIA, with a student perspective, in May.  Alongside the VP Higher Education from NUS, this is the only other voice on the Board that has a specific student focus and so it’s important that the position is maximised. The OIA is very keen to adapt but retain its independence within the new HE landscape, to engage more with the student body and, also, to understand why cases fell quite noticeably last year – 1517 complaints were received in 2016 as opposed to 1850 in 2015.

Initial investigations have suggested that a number of factors may be at play including:

  • a new EU Alternative Dispute Resolution Directive in 2015 giving students 12 months to complain as opposed to 3 months;
  • the impact of the Good Practice Framework, which is a key body of work from the OIA (indeed, it would have been considered somewhat disappointing if it hadn’t had any affect)
  • more Universities adopting Early Resolution schemes through initiatives such as cross- institutional mediation etc.
  • a rise in mental health problems and complex issues experienced by students, perhaps reducing their capacity or appetite for complaining.

There is, however, not enough of a body of evidence yet to fully explain the drop.  As a new member of the Board, I offered to seek the thoughts of SU colleagues and obtain feedback on their experiences of referring students to the OIA.

I had a small number of people attend a session at Students’ Unions 2017 on this subject- but they were absolutely fantastic. I started the session off assuming no former knowledge of the OIA on the audience’s part and gave an overview of its role and remit. I also talked about current/upcoming changes to the HE landscape, with the new Office for Students, the influx of Alternative Providers into the OIA scheme (after the Consumer Rights Act in 2015) many of which don’t have students’ unions, the expanding provision of HE in FE settings, degree apprenticeships, the new tertiary education body for Wales etc. etc., and where the OIA might fit into all of this. The officers who came said they found this particularly useful. Given the usefulness of the background material, I’d be happy to pass on the slides to others and to present at other events.

The wonderful audience offered some excellent thoughts and considerations for me to take back to the OIA, including how to make the service more obvious and accessible to students and how to get out and about and engage more with SUs and the student body. In discussions on the drop in cases going to the OIA, we talked about mental health issues and, also, the fact that students may well be becoming much more prone to reverting to legal redress through solicitors, not least because the OIA can’t consider matters of academic judgement.

For many students, their experience and complaint is intrinsically tied up with academic judgement – if you have issues with your tutor, you are likely to then have issues with their judgement.  This is something that Jim Dickinson has touched upon in his recent article in Wonkhe regarding the OfS and is something that may become more and more of an issue for debate within the OIA.

Feedback from the session made me absolutely certain that there is an appetite within SUs – from both staff and officers involved in the academic experience and in supporting and advising students – to learn more about the role of the OIA.  Furthermore, there is certainly more scope for the OIA to consult and engage with the student body and the SU community as it develops its strategic aims at this hugely formative time.  I’d be very happy to support the facilitation of that engagement during my term of office.


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