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Office of Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education

As the official website for the OIA states, 1,967 complaints were made to the OIA by students in 2018. However, only 4% of these complaints were declared ‘justified’. The complaints procedure adopted by the OIA is a relatively clear process; so why are so many students unsuccessful?

OIA Complaints Procedure

The OIA are an independent panel who review student complaints impartially from the University. Only a current or recently registered student at a higher education provider can make a complaint to the OIA. This will include someone studying for an award granted by a higher education provider. Thus, the term “student” includes trainees, apprentices and also those studying at a campus abroad from a provider in England and Wales. Also, the higher education provider must be a member of the OIA’s Scheme, in order for them to be able to review the complaint. This will include Universities, Further Education and Sixth-Form colleges and other alternative providers. The complaint can only be reviewed if the provider is a member of the scheme on the date the OIA receives the student’s Complaint Form, and if the provider was a member at the time of the events that the complaint is about. The OIA can also only look at certain types of complaints. A full list of the OIA members be found on their website. 
In order to make a complaint to the OIA, firstly, a student should usually exhaust their provider’s internal complaints/appeals process. In other words, a student must make a formal complaint/appeal to their University and follow the relevant procedures. When a provider feels there is no further avenue for the student internally, they will refer the student to the Office for Independent Adjudicator.  This is usually communicated by way of a completion of procedures letter. 

Once a student is in receipt of a completion of procedures letter from their higher education provider, they will have 12 months to make a formal complaint to the OIA. In order to do this, a student must complete and submit a complaint form outlining their grounds of appeal for the complaint. The OIA will only look at certain matters such as university complaints, academic appeals, bullying and harassment, discrimination, disciplinary matters such as plagiarism, and fitness to practice processes. The panel will also consider complaints relating to higher education accommodation, research supervision and student welfare. A full list of what matters the OIA can look into can be found on their website. 

Firstly, the OIA will check that the complaint/appeal is eligible under OIA rules; if it is seen as not eligible, the complaint will be dismissed. However, the complaints seen as eligible (or partly eligible) will be reviewed by independent staff until they reach a final decision on the outcome of the complaint. The OIA may reach the following outcomes;

a) justified 
b) partly justified 
c) not justified. 

Depending on the result of the complaint, the OIA will give recommendations in order to attempt to put the student back in the position they were in before the problem arose with the University. The OIA can make a wide range of recommendations to the provider, for example, for a student to have another assessment opportunity or to return to a course they want to complete. They may also recommend financial compensation to recompense the damage caused by the University. Providers are expected to fully comply with the recommendations, or the OIA can take action to resolve the situation. The OIA are often able to put things right for a student in a way that the Court could not.

Why are so many students unsuccessful and how can we help?

A student may be unsuccessful when making a complaint to the OIA because they do not exhaust the internal complaints/appeals process adopted by their University, thus making their complaint ‘not eligible’ under OIA rules. Our higher education solicitors can help with the initial stage of appeal by making sure students exhaust the internal process completely and submit a robust complaint/appeal in order to potentially avoid a complaint being made to the OIA. It is important to have someone signpost them in the right direction before progressing to the OIA to increase chances of a justified complaint. Please see our previous blog for further details on how our education lawyers can help you during the internal complaints process and also our guidance for the appeals process.

It has also been noted that many complaints are dismissed in the first stages of the OIA process and are deemed ‘not eligible’; this was at 18% in 2017. Our higher education lawyers can advise students on whether you have the grounds to raise a valid complaint and then proceed to help you draft your complaint. Therefore, with their extensive experience in further education law, our university solicitors can make sure your complaint has the best chance of passing the OIA eligibility check; they can emphasise not only what has happened to a student, but also where the University has failed them, focusing on the correct aspects of a complaint/appeal.

Furthermore, students will understandably be new to the OIA complaints procedure. The process may seem somewhat confusing and stressful as University is justifiably very important to students. Our higher education solicitors at HCB solicitors can support students to understand the complaint process. HCB will ensure that students have the guidance they need, guaranteeing that the procedure is as transparent and clear as possible in order to maximise your potential for success. The stress of making a complaint is reduced as our education lawyers can walk you through the process and take on the majority of the work. 
Higher education law can be complicated and stressful and a student must fully understand the complaints procedures to have the best possible chance of success. With their extensive knowledge of University complaints/appeals, our education law solicitors can help students increase their chances of achieving a justified complaint.  At HCB our higher education solicitors are passionate about getting the best possible result for students when submitting their complaint/appeals. Making a complaint to the OIA with the assistance of our specialist lawyers often is the most cost and time efficient way in resolving any issues with a University.
If you would like to discuss your potential or ongoing complaint to the OIA in more detail, please contact us on 0333 202 7175