Complaints about university courses were at their highest level on record in 2021, with criticisms being aimed at online exams and students not getting the experience they expected.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) received 2,763 complaints from students in 2021, an increase of 6% on 2020 levels.

In a new report, the OIA said “some students found that they weren’t getting the learning experiences that they reasonably expected” and that they had been affected by the “cumulative impact of the pandemic and industrial action”.

It also found that some students had struggled with technology, “especially in online timed exams”, with some finding it difficult to make the technology work at all, while for others poor typing skills had affected their performance.

The overall financial compensation awarded to students in 2021 was £1,304,379, “significantly higher than in previous years”.

Redhill And Reigate Life: A lack of practical learning drove many of the complaints (Canva)A lack of practical learning drove many of the complaints (Canva)

The OIA said this was partly because the impact of the pandemic made it difficult to come up with practical solutions to complaints.

The highest single amount of financial compensation was just over £68,000, while 63 students received compensation of more than £5,000.

The proportion of complaints that related partly to the pandemic had risen since 2020, accounting for 37% of complaints received, compared with 12% in 2020.

Across English and Welsh universities, 45% of complaints in 2021 related to “service issues” such as teaching or course delivery, while 29% related to academic appeals, a slight fall from 33% in 2020.

In total, 27% of complaints were seen as “justified”.

In one instance, students in the second year of a practical arts MA complained about their programme and how it had been advertised, as their practical modules were suspended during the pandemic.

The OIA recommended that the students be refunded 50% of the course fees and offered a further £6,250 for the inconvenience they had suffered.

Lack of practical learning

Students also “complained about lack of access to laboratories, cancelled or changed projects, placements and study abroad opportunities”.

PhD and postgraduate students were over-represented in complaints, with 45% of complaints coming from these students despite them making up 27% of the overall English and Welsh student populations.

The OIA said this could be because of the “substantial personal and financial investment” made by postgraduate students in their courses, leading to increased pressure on them to succeed.

Independent adjudicator Felicity Mitchell said: “2021 was another year dominated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Many students experienced disruption to their lives and to their studies, and providers worked hard to deliver learning and support whilst balancing complex considerations and risks.”

She added that the OIA had both received and closed more complaints than before and that she hoped the work had been helpful to students and universities in “these very challenging times”.