International students' complaints about UK universities surge to record high

Non-EU students' complaints about British colleges rose by 43 per cent in 2023

Nearly half of the complaints were about academic appeals, including problems with marking and final degree results. PA
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Complaints from international students to the UK universities watchdog surged to a record high last year.

A total of 3,137 complaints from all university students in England and Wales were made to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator last year - a 10 per cent increase on 2022.

International students, who pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, made 1,268 complaints about UK universities in 2023 – the “highest level yet”.

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

Despite the complaints, there has been a surge in applicants from the UAE to British institutes even as European Union universities offer GCC students more relaxed visas.

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

The category had been higher in previous years because of Covid-19 and industrial action, the watchdog said.

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

“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," the report said.

“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.

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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”.

“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," a representative for the OIA said.

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 ($1.5m) in compensation in 2023, which is higher than the previous year.

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

“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) representative 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.”

Updated: May 17, 2024, 8:06 AM