'Increase' in payouts to students

Students were handed hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation last year following complaints about universities, it has been revealed.

Universities were ordered to pay £313,750 to students overall in compensation, it was revealed
Universities were ordered to pay £313,750 to students overall in compensation, it was revealed

The total level of payouts rose by two-thirds in 2013, compared to the year before, according to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator's (OIA) annual report.

It showed that universities were ordered to pay £313,750 to students overall in compensation.

Institutions also paid out a further £59,359 to settle cases before they went to the OIA for review.

Among the biggest payouts - ranging in value from £5,000 to £20,000 - was compensation for a student who was not notified that a course had been cancelled until she had attended an induction course at the start of term, while a research postgraduate student was refunded fees after facing problems with supervision and research facilities.

OIA chief executive Rob Behrens said there were a number of reasons for the increase.

"First of all, we have closed more cases than ever before," he said.

"Secondly, we found to be justified, or partly justified, more cases than the year before.

"Thirdly, there is a number of settlements in which we got the university to make an offer to a student before the case came into our formal processes.

"All these reasons, put together, could explain why there has been an increase."

He added that the OIA has also seen more complaints by groups of students, and in these cases the amount of compensation could rise.

Mr Behrens went on to say that the decision taken by the government to triple fees in England to a maximum of £9,000 from the autumn of 2012, could lead to a rise in compensation in the future.

This is because, as students act increasingly like consumers, they are more likely to complain.

"Compensation is likely to go up as students are paying more," he said.

The annual report showed a drop in the number of new cases the OIA received in 2013, with 1,972 submitted compared to 2,012 in 2012.

At the same time, a record 2,251 cases were closed.

The OIA also said there were increases in the proportion of complaints it upheld and in those that were settled between the student and their university.

Overall, 6% of cases were found to be justified, 10% were partly justified and a further 9% were settled.

Mr Behrens said it was important to be cautious about the drop in new cases submitted to the OIA, and that next year, when the first cohort of students to pay £9,000 fees entered their third year of university, would give more information.

He suggested that the fall could be partly down to a move by the Adjudicator to introduce new pilots encouraging universities to resolve cases early.

" The drop in complaint numbers is very small but this, combined with an increase in the proportion of settled cases, suggests that initiatives to bring about early resolution of complaints are paying off" Mr Behrens said.

He added: "Students go to university with legitimately high hopes.

"While the overall drop in complaints to the OIA is welcome, the proportion that we upheld and the amount of compensation recommended both increased.

"This shows that there is still more work to be done."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said: "The drop in the number of complaints received is to be welcomed and suggests that universities are learning from complaints and responding to student feedback.

"The shift in England from public funding to increased fees means that students are understandably, and rightly, demanding more from their university courses. Universities are responding to this and are also improving the amount of information to students about courses to ensure that their experience matches their expectations.

"It is important to remember that the total number of complaints found to be justified or partly justified (350) represents a small percentage of the two million students covered by the scheme in England and Wales."

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "As a result of HE reforms, students have higher expectations of their universities. Students demand a higher quality academic experience, and are right to do so.

"We therefore welcome the fact that students are better informed - including about the role of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator - and that they are expecting more from their universities."