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05 July 2023

University complaints: approaches and considerations for students

4 mins

For many, university is a thoroughly positive, transformative period in their lives. From living independently for the first time and forming new friendships, to securing qualifications that open important new doors for career choices, most people’s experience of university will change the course of their lives.

However, as much good as it can do, when it goes wrong it can cause very serious harm. A student may miss out on their qualifications if accused of cheating, falling short of academic expectations or of non-academic misconduct such as committing a criminal offence. Most people, if expelled from university, will not get a second chance. That means, if they lose that opportunity, it may be gone for good.

Universities also have to deal with issues of life and limb for those who live on their premises and take their courses. This can include making arrangements for students with medical issues, responding to allegations of bullying or harassment and ensuring their campus and accommodations are safe and suitable.

This is why university complaints are often very serious matters, and why it is deeply concerning that the number of complaints received by the complaints appeals body, the ‘Office of the Independent Adjudicator’ (OIA), has hit a record high for the fourth year in a row. The rate at which the number of complaints is increasing is outstripping the growth in the student body. It is also increasing despite the number of complaints relating to the pandemic going down.

The rise in complaints suggests that things are going wrong more often. From our practice, we know that in the most extreme cases, this can permanently change a person’s life for the worse.

Bindmans currently represents an individual, who we will call ‘J’, in an appeal against her removal from a medical degree. Her university removed her from her course after she failed a paper. However, she sat the paper shortly after contracting Covid-19, and losing her mother and uncle in a very short space of time. The university had policies in place that should have protected her, but they did not, and she was expelled from the course. The university refused her appeal and did not readmit her until lawyers became involved. Even then, it took over a year and the involvement of court proceedings to finally have the university admit they were wrong, and offer to consider reinstating her and paying her damages. By this point, our client will have spent two years out of education before she can realistically return to studies.

This is why it is important that robust procedures and organisations are in place to deal with university complaints, such as the OIA, who will hear complaints and appeals for academic and non-academic misconduct. However, these processes can get complicated fast, as students attempt to navigate technical procedures adopted by their universities and complex legal rights.

When the OIA can’t resolve a problem, things only get more difficult as a student may need to go to court. Strict time limits apply in these cases, and students may not know that they may have to take steps to protect their case before the OIA will give their decision.

When a student feels like something is going or has gone wrong, they should find their university’s complaints procedure and follow it very carefully. The procedure will likely set out time limits, the forms to use, and what can and cannot be a ground of complaint or appeal. It is important to get these things right.

Often, universities will have sources of advice such as the student’s union, or a body of student advocates. These can be a valuable help. However, in serious complaints or appeals, it will often be helpful to seek legal advice early, to ensure that opportunities to intervene are not missed.

Our team of Education Law experts offer expert advice in relation to the topics covered in this article. For more information, visit our web page here.

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