Students may be compensated for lost teaching during UK lockdown

Students could be awarded financial compensation for lost teaching time during the Covid-19 lockdown after the higher education complaints watchdog told an institution to pay £1,000 to an international student.

However, the National Union of Students (NUS) described the process for dealing with complaints about university disruption during the pandemic as “farcical” and “inadequate” as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator published details of a handful of individual cases.

About 200 complaints have been submitted to the ombudsman so far. Many more are expected, as students can only take their case to the OIA if they have exhausted the internal complaints procedure at their own university. The NUS says the system must be simplified to speed up redress.

Tens of thousands of dissatisfied students have signed petitions calling for tuition fee refunds after the pandemic resulted in widespread disruption, with courses moved online and limited face-to-face teaching. Many were forced to self-isolate in halls of residence as Covid infections swept through the sector.

The OIA has published details on its website of a sample of cases it has considered, relating mainly to Covid disruption in the last academic year when the UK first went into lockdown, and is only now starting to receive complaints relating to the current academic year.

The student awarded £1,000 was a second-year international student paying annual fees of £13,500. The OIA said four weeks of teaching for a module, and a final project worth 60% of the module, were cancelled, which meant the student lost the opportunity to develop their written work and research.

“We concluded that the provider had not taken sufficient steps in relation to this module to mitigate the disruption to the student’s learning experience or to ensure that the delivery of the module was broadly equivalent to its usual arrangements.”

Three of the 10 case summaries found students’ complaints were either justified or partly justified. However, other complaints were rejected as the OIA concluded universities had taken the necessary steps to ensure students could still achieve their expected learning outcomes.

The NUS president, Larissa Kennedy, said the OIA individual complaints procedure was “complicated” and “niche”, and could not address mass discontent among students. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that the government seems to be completely unaware of the level of student anger. We are seeing, from a wave of student rent strikes and other action, that students feel they have been neglected and abandoned over the last term.”

Earlier this month, the OIA announced plans to allow students affected by the same events to have their complaints addressed collectively. Under the proposals, the ombudsman would have discretion to look into complaints that have not yet completed universities’ internal procedures.

Felicity Mitchell, the independent adjudicator at the OIA, said: “We recognise that many people [at universities] have been working incredibly hard to minimise disruption and to support students, and that students and those who support them have faced very real difficulties. We are acutely aware that there are limits to what is reasonable or even possible in this context. But students must still be treated fairly.”