University student complaints over supervision, teaching and course-related resources soared to their highest level during the pandemic, the university watchdog’s annual report has shown.
Complaints about disruption to university because of the pandemic accounted for 12 per cent of all complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) in 2020.
More than two in five (43 per cent) complaints concerned "service issues", a term which encompasses disruption caused by industrial action and the coronavirus pandemic.
This compares with just 29 per cent of complaints regarding “service issues” in 2019.
The OA has said, however, that there is a time lag in complaints reaching the adjudicator as students have to raise their complaint with their university first.
University students first saw their teaching moved online in the spring term last year when the national lockdown in March was announced.
Most students in England were then told in January 2021 not to return to campus, with the Department for Education (DfE) confirming that all remaining students in England will not be allowed to return to in-person lessons on campus until mid-May at the earliest.
Earlier this year, the watchdog revealed that it had received 2,604 complaints from students during the year of the pandemic - the highest number ever received in a year - and an increase of 10% on 2019.
The OIA, which can offer partial tuition refunds, received just over 300 complaints about the impact of Covid - and the majority of coronavirus-related complaints were about disruption to teaching and learning.
A group of students’ unions recently criticised the OIA's complaints process, sating it is too complex and leaves the watchdog "unequipped" to provide students with "collective fee justice".
The report concludes: "Our statutory remit is to review student complaints and our role does not extend to making wider recommendations on issues such as tuition fee refunds for every student, outside of complaints processes."
The report shows that universities and colleges were told to pay £459,582 in compensation last year to students who had suffered financial loss, distress or inconvenience.
In addition, £282,550 was paid through settlements reached after students complained to the OIA, taking the total compensation to £742,132 - which is slightly less than last year.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We have been clear that that the quality and quantity of tuition should not drop as a result of the pandemic, and the Office for Students have been monitoring to ensure this is the case.
"Where students do not feel appropriate education is being provided, we expect this to be resolved by providers, and we welcome the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) in cases where this has not been possible."
Additional reporting by PA.