Complaints to the universities watchdog have surged to a record high during the year of the pandemic.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received 2,604 complaints from students in 2020 – the highest number ever received in a year – and it was an increase of 10% on 2019.
The figures come as the majority of university students in England have been told to stay at home and not return to campus under the latest lockdown.
A number of universities have taken the decision to move lessons online until even later in the academic year, which has sparked calls for tuition fee refunds.
University students first saw their teaching moved online in the spring term last year when the national lockdown in March was announced.
In 2020, the watchdog received approximately 300 complaints from students about the disruption to their university experience caused by Covid-19.
The OIA stressed that there is a time lag in complaints reaching the adjudicator as students have to raise their complaint with their university first.
On the rise in complaints, a spokeswoman for the OIA said: “We think factors such as students’ increasing awareness of their rights and of routes to raise their concerns are part of the reason for that, as well as disruption arising from specific events.”
The figures come as an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report found that a growing proportion of university students are not happy with their academic experience – and nearly two in three have seen their mental health worsen.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, said: “It has clearly been an incredibly difficult year to be a student.”
He added: “Where students do not get anything like what they’ve been promised, then they should ask their institutions for more support, consider making a complaint and investigate the OIA’s processes.
“It’s also worth remembering, however, that staff are working their socks off with the resources they have to try and deliver for their students.”
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: “We sympathise with students who are forced to see themselves as consumers in a higher education system predicated on fees and debt.
“Students recognise that staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and we will continue to stand with the National Union for Students in fighting ministers and university leaders whenever they try to put profit over teaching and learning.”
A Universities UK spokesperson said: “All universities are committed to providing a high quality and engaging educational experience for their students, while prioritising their physical and mental wellbeing, and have invested heavily in Covid-19 safety measures, enhanced digital learning platforms, and additional learning and wellbeing support.
“We know from recent sector surveys that many students are satisfied with how their university has responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic but, given the disruption caused, it is understandable that some students may feel their experience of university has not been as they would have hoped.
“If students have a complaint, they should speak to their universities in the first instance.”