Online learning failures justify fee refunds, says student ombudsman

The ombuds received 2,604 complaints in 2020 – 900 of which arose from the impact of coronavirus, which forced UK universities to suspend face-to-face teaching for months

The student ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA), has recommended some universities repay tuition fees to disgruntled students – with online learning failures during the pandemic behind some of the successful claims.

One university was told to repay £1,000 to a student disappointed that online learning had not delivered the same learning experiences as face-to-face teaching. The OIA recommended another institution repay £2,000 to each student in a cohort that complained of lost teaching time and poor outcomes from the online alternatives.

The ombuds received 2,604 complaints from students in 2020 – 900 of which arose from the impact of coronavirus, which forced UK universities to suspend face-to-face teaching for months. Some of these cases were related to accommodation rent rebates or cancelled learning.

The student complaints service published nine incidences of complaints it handled to guide universities handling similar issues.

These case summaries illustrate some of the challenging and complex situations that providers and students have been dealing with as a result of the pandemic
– Felicity Mitchell, OIA

A student on a one-year Bar professional training course complained that four modules moved online when the nationwide lockdown began in March 2020. Although the OIA thought the provider had “put in place measures to ensure that it could deliver something broadly equivalent to its usual arrangements for three of those modules”, it felt the provision of the fourth module fell short.

“The fourth module was in Conference Skills and would normally be delivered through role-play exercises and assessed by a filmed performance using actors. Students had not received any face-to-face teaching when the course moved online and had not had the opportunity to practise skills. The provider decided it was not possible to conduct the role-play exercises or to ask students to submit a recording of a live oral assessment,” the OIA report explains. Instead, students were asked to submit a written assessment.

The OIA said the university “could have thought more about how it could deliver the practical learning students reasonably expected to receive”, like, for example, undertaking role-play activities virtually. “We do not think the replacement of this teaching with recorded materials was enough to replicate the practical skills students expected to learn,” the OIA summarised, recommending the university repay £1,000 in tuition fees.

In the other case, which saw each student receive £2,000 compensation, the complainants said university “online provision was of lower quality” than what was promised them in the £24,000-a-year business-related taught postgraduate course. The students also said they missed out on summer school activities, visits to businesses, networking and career development opportunities that were not delivered online. The OIA concluded the university “had not considered whether it had delivered the teaching and learning that it had promised the students, or something broadly equivalent to it”. The university settled the case with the students concerned.

Felicity Mitchell, independent adjudicator, said: “These case summaries illustrate some of the challenging and complex situations that providers and students have been dealing with as a result of the pandemic. They illustrate our approach to deciding what is fair and reasonable in these kinds of situations. We hope they will be helpful to providers and students.”


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