The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for High Education (OIA) has introduced new rules for large group complaints following consultation with the sector which came into effect on 19 April 2021.
When do the rules apply?
The new rules give the OIA the freedom to adapt its usual complaints process so that it can manage large group complaints “more efficiently whilst maintaining fairness”. They are intended to apply where there are complaints from a large number of students at a single provider, where there is a high degree of “commonality” between the complaints and where the complaints could be considered collectively. No doubt the OIA has been motivated to effect the change by a series of events causing disruption to learning, as such industrial action and the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are the rules?
The OIA’s guidance clarifies how the process will work, the key features of which are as follows:
- It is designed to apply to complaints brought by 100 or more students, though the rules do not specify any minimum number;
- It does not apply to similar complaints about different providers, though it does apply to complaints by students from different providers about the same awarding provider;
- Complaints qualify for the large-group process if the OIA, rather than the provider, decides they are about the same or very similar issues and if justified/partly justified, the same remedy would apply. The OIA will first discuss the matter with the provider and the students;
- The OIA reserves the right to identify sub-groups within a large group complaint where the impact for those students in the sub-groups is different;
- Students can designate a representative, but each individual student will need to opt in to the large group complaints process;
- To be eligible, some of the students, but not all of them, will have to have exhausted the provider’s internal processes;
- The time limit is the same as for individual complaints i.e. 12 months. If, however, the OIA decides that the large group complaints process is applicable, it will set a deadline of not less than four weeks for submitting the complaint, following discussion with the provider and the students who have contacted it. The OIA may decide to include in the large group process complaints submitted later, depending on the individual circumstances;
- Where a complaint has been upheld, or the provider has made an offer to settle a large group complaint, the OIA will recommend that the provider extend the offer to other students affected by the same issue but who have not made a complaint, particularly in circumstances of non-delivery of a service or where students in a particular cohort or group have not been treated fairly;
- The OIA decides what information and documents it needs in order to review the complaint;
- The OIA’s approach to making recommendations on finding a complaint justified/partly justified remains the same;
- Providers are expected to help the OIA with the administration of its review of large group complaints, including giving students information about the process e.g. by putting a link to the OIA’s special complaint form for large groups in the completion of procedures letter in relevant cases.
What are the sector’s concerns?
The sector’s response to the OIA’s consultation on the proposal revealed a concern that the OIA would accept complaints that had not been raised with the provider. As indicated above, the new rules require the “issue” to have been addressed by the provider first, but not all students included in the OIA’s review will need to have invoked the provider’s own process. If the OIA’s emphasis on consultation between all parties is honoured, then the surprise element for providers may be diminished.
The sector also expressed concerns that the OIA would use the new rule to generate complaints and students would “jump on the bandwagon”. The OIA has sought to assuage those fears, indicating that it is unlikely that the rule will be invoked very often and that it expects to continue to handle most complaints as normal. It also intends to review the operation of the new process after the first year.
As always the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It will be interesting to see whether the new process will become a famine or a feast.
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