Complaints about universities from international students surge to record high

Complaints from students to the universities watchdog surged to a record high last year – and international students have driven the rise.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received 3,137 complaints from university students in England and Wales in 2023, which was a 10% increase on 2022.

Overall, complaints from international students, who pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, rose to 1,268 in 2023 – the “highest level yet”.

The number of complaints from non-EU students – which accounted for nearly 90% of complaints from international students – rose by 43%, the OIA said.

Meanwhile, complaints from home undergraduates reduced and it was most notable in the number of complaints relating to “service issues”.

This had been higher in previous years because of Covid-19 and industrial action, according to the watchdog.

Overall, nearly half (45%) of the complaints to the OIA from students were about academic appeals, including problems with marking and final degree results, up from 38% in 2022.

The watchdog said the rise in complaints about academic matters has been concentrated in complaints from non-EU students and postgraduate students.

More than half of the complaints from international students related to academic appeals – a higher proportion than for home students.

The report said: “For international students there is often substantial personal and financial investment involved in coming to study in the UK, and sometimes sponsorship arrangements, leading to a possible greater sense of pressure to ‘succeed’ in their studies.

“It can also be more difficult for international students to make use of options such as taking time out from their studies if they are experiencing difficulties, and some options may not be available to them due to visa requirements.”

It added there are issues that are more likely to affect international students, including the tightening of visa restrictions.

The watchdog said other issues were raised in complaints from international students, which included termination of studies “due to a lack of attendance or engagement” – most commonly in the context of visa requirements – and the practices of some recruitment agents.

It comes after the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) raised concerns on Tuesday about agents recruiting prospective international students who may be “mis-selling UK higher education”.

A spokesperson for the OIA said: “It can be more difficult for international students who may come from very different academic backgrounds to fully understand what to expect from UK higher education and it’s important that higher education providers are as clear as possible about what students can expect and make sure that any agents they use also provide clear and accurate information.”

The OIA report said 2023 was “another complex and challenging year” in the higher education sector, with increasingly acute financial pressures on providers, the continuing high cost of living, housing issues, and ongoing concerns about student mental health and wellbeing.

Overall, students received more than £1.2 million in compensation in 2023, which is higher than the previous year.

Independent adjudicator Helen Megarry said: “In 2023, my first year as independent adjudicator, our team handled more complaints than ever before.

“We helped to bring resolution and closure for students on the issues that matter to them.

“It was a difficult time for many students and providers, making the work we do in sharing good practice and promoting learning from complaints even more important.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said: “There are over two million students in English higher education institutions. The vast majority of students report being satisfied overall with their experience at UK universities.

“There will be some instances when students are unhappy, and the OIA report provides useful feedback to help universities to improve and focus more support – for example around financial and mental health issues.

“Universities will take this latest report on board and continue to work hard so every student receives the quality of education they deserve.”