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Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) Annual Report 2023

The report covers the number and outcomes of complaints received and closed by the adjudicator in 2023, trends in complaints and examples of some of the complaints students made. It also includes information on how the sector can learn from complaints, how the OIA works with institutions and developments in the organisation over the year. 

The full report can be found here


  • Record numbers of complaints were made in 2023. The OIA received 3,137 new complaints, 10 per cent more than in 2022 (p6)
  • Complaints relating to academic appeals (such as assessments, progression and grades including requests for additional consideration of personal circumstances) as a proportion of caseload rose to 45 per cent (from 38 per cent in 2022) (p6)
  • Complaints about service issues (teaching, course delivery, supervision and course-related facilities) fell to 34 per cent from 38 per cent (p7)
  • The OIA consistently receives more complaints from students on business and management courses, reflecting the high overall number of students in this subject area. However, in 2023, there was a substantial increase in complaints from students on these courses (p8)
  • There was also a significant rise in the number of complaints from international non-EU students - up around 330 on the previous year. These students account now for 36 per cent of OIA complaints (p9)
  • PhD and other postgraduate students are significantly over-represented in claim numbers. In 2023, this cohort accounted for nearly half of all complaints (p10)
  • A third of students who complained in 2023 identified themselves as disabled. Of these, around 45 per cent reported a mental health condition (p24)
  • 21 per cent of cases were deemed justified (2 per cent), partly justified (7 per cent), or settled in favour of the student (12 per cent). This is slightly lower than in 2022, at least in part due to the increasing proportion of academic appeals which have a lower uphold rate (p11)
  • The proportion of cases that were classed as not justified rose in 2023. In some of these cases, the provider had made a reasonable offer to the student during the internal processes to resolve the complaint and it remained open for the student to accept (p11)
  • The overall total financial compensation to students in 2023 was £1,218,875. Recommendations for financial remedies totalled £580,311, while students received a total of £638,564 through settlement agreements. The highest single amount of financial compensation was £42,500. 58 students received amounts of £5,000 or more, of whom 24 received £10,000 or more (p32)
  • The OIA closed 3,352 complaints in 2023, 19 per cent up on the previous year (p5)

Implications for governance:

The OIA annual report provides universities with an opportunity to look at their own complaints processes and procedures and how well they are operating in light of the findings and trends outlined by the adjudicator.

Figures from 2023 show a rise in academic appeal cases, driven by greater numbers of international and postgraduate students making complaints, with half of postgraduate complainants coming from overseas.

The OIA offers a number of reasons for this. Some academic issues only affect postgraduate or PhD students, such as problems raised with the PhD supervisory relationship, for instance.

More widely, the adjudicator suggests that there could be a mismatch between international students’ vision of what they hope to gain (perhaps coloured by promises made by some unscrupulous agents as outlined in Advance HE’s governor news alert on this week’s MAC review) and their lived experiences and outcomes.

International students are affected by issues that face students in general, such as cost-of-living and accommodation pressures, but they can also struggle with concerns such as the political climate and changes in policy direction such as the tightening of visa restrictions, international conflict, public perceptions about their home country, and changes in the relative value of their home currency.

The substantial personal and financial investment involved in coming to study in the UK can create a greater pressure to “succeed”. It can also be more difficult for international students to make use of options such as taking time out from their studies, and some options may not be available to them because of visa requirements

Previous academic experiences in home countries can also differ from what is on offer and expected in the UK. One of the cases in the OIA report involves an international student who was called to an academic misconduct meeting because he had memorised and regurgitated paragraphs from text books in a closed-book exam, without citing the source. The student claimed this approach had earned them high marks in the past. The OIA did not uphold the complaint against the university and found its action of awarding a zero in the paper but allowing the student to attempt the exam again for a capped mark proportionate.

OIA advice to universities is to do all they can to help international students to “understand what is expected and what is and is not considered acceptable academic practice”, using simple, jargon-free language to do so. 

As the sector continues to try to increase international student recruitment, boards might want to consider if appropriate levels of guidance and support are available at their institutions to ensure this diverse cohort can thrive.

Just as international students may have additional challenges which can impact their studies, disabled students are another group who continue to be significantly overrepresented in complaints to the OIA.

In 2023, as in previous years, the majority of complaints relating to academic appeals involved students who were experiencing personal and/or health difficulties but did not seek support, or did not use the procedures to request additional consideration of their circumstances at the appropriate time. 

Governing boards will be reassured that in the complaints that the OIA considered, they found that providers were “generally handling academic appeal processes in line with the guidance in our Good Practice Framework” and that in almost all cases, information about special consideration and how to get support had been made available to students.

What they identified however, was that some experienced barriers to making use of these processes, even though most knew about them. Reasons included concerns about privacy, cultural norms to not share personal information, trying to be resilient and pushing on through, and not fully appreciating the impact their mental health was having on their studies at the time. For some students the option of deferring an assessment, for instance, was not possible and they preferred to make an attempt and hope for the best. Some feel unable for various reasons to obtain documentary evidence to support a request.

OIA says that while it is reasonable for providers to expect students to engage with processes at the right time, it is important to balance this with recognising the difficulties this can present for some students and where possible to take steps to reduce the barriers. The Good Practice Framework: Requests for additional consideration has more guidance. 

Governors may wish to familiarise themselves with the Academic Assurance Project undertaken by Advance HE, Universities UK, GuildHE and the Committee of University Chairs about how they seek assurance for academic governance and the student experience in a regulatory environment. 

The adjudicator also emphasised the importance of making sure support services are accessible and promoted: advice that will benefit all students, whatever their particular needs.

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