Complaints made by university students about their courses reached a record high in 2021, with over a third referencing the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) – the authority that handles higher education grievances – received 2,763 complaints from students last year.
A report from the OIA said: “Many students continued to experience disruption to their studies and their lives” through 2021 and that “some have been very significantly affected, often those who were already vulnerable.”
Complaints came from across a range of subjects, but frequently came from more practical courses – such as science and design courses – where there were issues over access to facilities on campus.
There were also concerns raised about changes to assessments and requests for consideration of personal difficulties.
The number of complaints follows a growing trend, with a 68% increase since 2017.
Jack Fairbrass, a 23-year-old politics student at the University of Sheffield, said the quality of teaching was definitely impacted by lockdown and although online teaching became quite polished he found the initial standard of teaching to be a “joke”.
“I never complained about it because I knew that realistically it wasn’t going to change anything, I didn’t see the point in wasting my energy arguing about it,” he added.
Complaints about ‘service issues’ – relating to teaching, supervision and course-related facilities – made up about 45% of those received.
The OIA said over £1.3m was awarded in compensation to students.
Sam Cook, a 22-year-old studying Civil Engineering at the University of Birmingham, was slightly more positive about his experience.
“In terms of the uni bringing in no detriment policies and things like that I think they were really good. They definitely made accommodations for people’s grades suffering because of the pandemic.”
However, he continued: “The main change in quality of teaching was the transition to online learning. In a way it does make you think your degree is being devalued, but I found it easier to work with online lectures.”
Proportionally, the OIA received less complaints relating to academic appeals last year – the report suggests that this could be because of the ‘safety net’ policies put in place.
Thomas Roche, a 22-year-old graduate who studied geography at Coventry University, said while online learning was more convenient, not being able to access study spaces was a hindrance and working at home could be “challenging”.
He added: “It failed to reach the standard of in-person teaching and was a far less engaging experience.”
He added that he did not complain to the university.
A spokesperson for Universities UK, an advocacy group for higher education, said: “The last two years have thrown unprecedented challenges at universities and students. We are proud of how our universities have adapted, coped and even thrived in adverse circumstances. We must continue to learn and improve – and this latest report helps us to do just that.
“While we are concerned at the number of complaints taken to the OIA last year, Covid’s distorting effect on the student experience is clearly reflected in the data. With Covid-related complaints representing 37% of this year’s total, compared to 12% of 2020’s total, we are likely seeing some of last year’s effects in this year’s figures.
“The overwhelming majority of students continue to receive a world-class education, with the total number of complaints representing a small fraction of the total student population.”