How to complain and get compensation from your university
Feel like your university has given you a bad deal? This step-by-step guide will equip you with the knowledge, tools and courage to complain about poor service and receive compensation.
If you buy a new laptop that promises super-fast performance but you take it home to find it's slower than a snail, you'd go back to the store and ask for some compensation, right? Well, it only makes sense that you should be able to do the same with your degree.
After all, when you're paying a hefty £9,250 a year for your course, you expect the service you're receiving to be up to scratch – and you're not alone in thinking so. The number of students making complaints to their university is on the rise and, in 2020, 2,604 students complained, with a whopping £742,132 in compensation recommended/offered to students.
So if you think you've got a legitimate grievance with your uni, follow our steps to submit a complaint and you could receive hundreds in compensation!
How to make a complaint to your university
Try to come to an informal solution
Making an official complaint to your university can be a long and stressful process so, if possible, you should look into resolving it informally first.
Try speaking to your personal tutor or another person in a position of authority who might be able to act on your behalf and resolve the situation for you. This will be much quicker and more straightforward than putting together a formal case and letter.
Your university will probably also expect you to try this before submitting an official complaint.
Read up on your university's complaints policy
Every university has a different way of dealing with student appeals and complaints, so the first thing is to read through your own university’s internal policy.
You should be able to find it online pretty easily – try Googling something like "X university complaints policy".
For example, the University of Manchester outlined its procedure in a flowchart. If you can't find your university's policy online, speak to Student Services.
Be aware that your university may have a certain time period in which you have to submit your complaint after the incident takes place to make it valid, so don't hang about!
Know what you're complaining about
The next step is to have a clear idea of exactly what your complaint concerns. This might sound obvious, but taking a bit of time to narrow down your complaint to a few brief points will work wonders. You'll need to be specific but concise, and have good examples and evidence to back it up.
Technically speaking, you can make a formal complaint or appeal about anything you think breaches the terms of the contract you signed up for (or your rights as a student), as long as it's something over which the university has control.
However, only go down this road if you're 100% serious and feel that other students could benefit from changes being made – otherwise, you're just wasting their time and yours.
Some of the most popular reasons for legitimate or successful complaints relate to:
- Poor facilities and learning resources
- Student accommodation
- Cancellation of university courses
- Cancellation of timetabled tutoring
- Changes to course content, structure or qualification
- Changes to course fees or unexpected extra costs
- Discrimination or harassment
- Cheating or plagiarism allegations
- Marking of degree assessments.
You can't submit a complaint about something that comes down to 'academic judgement', such as being unhappy with a mark or grade you've received. Your university should have a separate appeals procedure for this.
However, you can make a complaint about poor teaching or malpractice which led to you receiving a bad mark.
If you're making a complaint about your course (or any other aspect of your university education) not being what you expected, you'll have to show you did thorough research beforehand – that means attending open days, asking questions and reading the prospectus thoroughly.
If you didn't realise you would only have four contact hours a week, but it clearly states that on the website, you don't have much chance with a complaint.
Check the CMA's Rights for Students
Since March 2015, the CMA (Consumer and Marketing Authority) has started regulating how universities comply with consumer law.
They provide a document with some rules and regulations for unis to follow, so it's worth checking if your complaint is in breach of any of these (if it is, you've got a good case).
The CMA has previously warned universities across the UK that many are in breach of basic consumer laws, and have advised unis to pull their socks up or face legal action.
Know what you want from your complaint
What do you actually want to get out of this process? Do you simply want somebody to recognise that they've behaved irresponsibly and apologise? Or are you seeking a tuition fee discount or cash settlement?
It's important to consider this, as the process could turn out to be quite time-consuming. Put together some clear demands that you believe would compensate you fairly.
If you're asking for monetary compensation, then it must be reasonable, realistic and justifiable. There are no guarantees but, if you don't ask, you don't get.
Collect the evidence
You'll need to present a convincing case against the relevant parties (e.g. a tutor, department or even the university itself) by gathering some credible evidence.
This could include any emails or written direct communication you've had, photographs or videos of incidents (if appropriate) or statements from witnesses or relevant professionals (e.g. your doctor).
Also, read through what you signed up for. When you registered as a student you will have likely signed a student contract that outlines what your university's responsibilities are – if they're in breach of that, you've got a strong case.
Use your resources
You don't have to go it alone – there are people whose job it is to help you out.
Start with your student union. Get hold of student advisers, representatives, councillors and anybody else with valuable experience when it comes to knowing about the university's complaints system.
Perhaps your parents might be able to help, or you know some law students who are great at presenting cases. And, of course, you've got the whole internet at your disposal.If you want to make a complaint about your student union, there will be a separate complaints procedure for this, normally outlined on the union website.
Submit your formal complaint
Now you've done your homework and have all bases covered, it's time to write up your complaint following the set procedure.
Despite how tempting it may be, refrain from getting too personal. Try to stay calm and rational – this will actually work in your favour in the long run.
Concentrate on providing specific concrete examples of where you think you've been treated unfairly to allow an assessment to take place.
Receive a Completion of Procedures letter
As you might expect, these things can take time to be resolved. However, the university has an obligation to send you a 'Completion of Procedures' letter as quickly as possible. This essentially outlines the issues they've identified and their final decision.
You should hear confirmation that they've received your complaint within a week, but it may take a month or two for them to come to a decision.
It's also worth knowing that some universities will try to wrangle out of this stage. This makes it difficult to take your case to an ombudsman (a person or entity who has been appointed to look into complaints about companies and organisations) if you're dissatisfied with the outcome, so make sure you chase them up.
Which takes us to the next stage...
Consider taking your complaint to an ombudsman
Hopefully, you're satisfied with the response you get from your university.
But if you feel that you haven't achieved the outcome you deserve in your situation, take your case to the OIA if you're studying in England or Wales, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman if you're a student in Scotland, or the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman if you're studying there.
These entities are independent bodies tasked with reviewing student complaints. They don’t cover everything, however – you can't go to them with cases about admission, academic judgement, student employment or any complaint which has or is currently going through court.
They don't have the power to punish or fine universities, but they can make recommendations that universities take action to redress a problem (including offering compensation) that universities will usually follow.
It can only look at your complaint once you've first gone through the internal complaints procedure of your university and have a 'Completion of Procedures' (COP) letter in your hand.
You have 12 months from the date on the letter to file a complaint here. They will ensure that your case is looked at objectively and will look carefully at decisions and explanations made by the university.
Note: In exceptional cases, they will also look at complaints where the university hasn't got back to you within 90 days of your initial complaint.
Submit your complaint to the ombudsman
Download and fill in a complaints form. Be clear on why you dispute the university's decision and what your expectations are.
Send it off with all the relevant evidence and paperwork used for the university complaints procedure, and don't forget to include your COP letter.
The ombudsman will either agree with the university or force them to review their decision. If the case is serious and you're still not satisfied with the outcome, you'll need to seek proper legal advice and potentially take it to court independently. The Citizens Advice Bureau should be your first port of call in this instance.
Many students (and graduates) feel uneasy about challenging their lecturers or their university, but it's your right. And don't forget that voicing valid concerns and holding them accountable will also ultimately help to improve the experience of future students.
How one graduate got £61k from a university complaint
In June 2019, it was announced that a graduate from Anglia Ruskin University had received a five-figure payout over a complaint to her university.
Claiming her course turned out to be a "Mickey Mouse" degree, Pok Wong, also known as Fiona, pursued her complaint for several years until she was finally offered the out-of-court settlement of £61,000 (although, once her legal costs were deducted, the amount she actually received was substantially less than this).
Save the Student asked her what advice she'd give to other students thinking about complaining. She gave us this top tip:
Make a record of detailed events when things don’t sound right at the university, including meetings and conversations.
In my case, many lectures were cancelled or lecturers didn’t turn up... so record the detail of such events.
And, if you have any doubts about going into your degree, Ms Wong also advised:
Consider taking an insurance policy to cover your legal claim before formally enrolling in the education programme.
If you want to find out more, you can check out Pok Wong's story and how she received her payout.
Can you complain about online teaching?
During the coronavirus pandemic, universities were forced to close from March 2020 until the end of the academic year, with all teaching was moving online. And, while tuition fees remained the same for the academic year 2020/2021, the majority of teaching had to be done online.
Plans for the academic year 2021/2022 differ by university. Although there are no restrictions on face-to-face teaching, some universities have stuck to a blend of in-person and online learning.
While the UK government has said tuition fee refunds shouldn't be given across the board, you could still receive compensation if you believe your university didn't make a reasonable effort to let you complete your studies.
When we spoke to Universities UK (the representative organisation for the UK's universities), they said this regarding students who weren't satisfied with the quality of teaching on their course:
Students who are not satisfied with the support they are getting should make this known to their university in the first instance.
UK universities are totally committed to providing students the world class university experience that they need to succeed and for which our universities are renowned globally.
You can read their full statement here.
And some students have been successful with their complaints. In March 2021, an international medical student was awarded £5,000 as compensation because coronavirus made the university stop all clinical placements. After paying £38,000 for their course, the student thought that missing out on the valuable placement was something that they should be compensated for.
If you are thinking about submitting a complaint about the way your university handled/is handling online teaching during the pandemic, we suggest you take up your concerns with your course leader in the first instance.
If you're not satisfied with the outcome, then you can start thinking about following the procedure outlined above.
Knowing your consumer rights is extremely useful if you decide to complain – find out all about them in our guide.