<Guidance for students affected by recent strikes in relation to the USS pension scheme dispute

The Office for Students (OfS) published some guidance on April 11th 2018 for students who have been affected by the recent academic strikes and would like to know what they can do. We have summarised the guidance below, but if you would like more information, please visit their website here.

For further details and information on the industrial action and events that have occurred so far, please visit our UCU FAQ section.

1. Contacting your university

Informal mitigation [+]

If you have had or will have your studies disrupted in any way by the industrial action, then you should contact your university in the first instance to discuss whether it is possible to make up for any lost teaching, and whether any other loss of services and support can be rearranged so as to minimise the strike’s impact on your studies.

Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) [+]

Where lost teaching has had an impact on assessments or other work that counts towards your final grade, you may be able to submit a claim for this to be taken into account as part of the university’s SAC process. The University will only consider mitigating circumstances under this policy, if students are able to evidence that they tried to mitigate those circumstances informally in the first instance. The University define serious adverse circumstances as being:

“Exceptional personal circumstances, outside your control, that have prevented you from either acquiring or demonstrating the skills, knowledge or competencies required to meet the learning outcomes associated with an assessment that contributes to the qualification for which you are studying notwithstanding your best efforts, in consultation with your department/school and College, to mitigate those circumstances.”

In order for your serious adverse circumstances to be taken into consideration you will need to complete an SAC Form (Serious Adverse Circumstances Form) which you can download here.

What should I include?

You need to include brief details of the circumstance that is causing/has caused an impact on your studies (i.e. it is enough to say UCU strike, industrial action, loss of teaching time etc.) and include how these circumstances are/were beyond your control. Where you need to go into detail is with the effect that this has then had on you and your studies (i.e. X number of lectures were cancelled with missed content not being made later available, additional stress and pressure, not being able to contact your lecturer at a crucial time in relation to deadlines etc.). Try to make it as specific to you and your situation as possible; the SAC form guidance recognises that each individual reacts differently to the same situation, and they need to know how you personally were impacted.

How long should it be?

You should try to be as clear and concise as possible. The SAC form has a word limit of 500 words for the main section (Table A or Table B).

I don’t really understand what I need to put on the form?

Your College Support Office will be able to help you in completing an SAC form and they will be used to supporting students through this process. If you do not feel comfortable going to your College for this, and feel you need more support in completing the form, you can contact the Help & Advice Service at the Students’ Union.

You can find more general information on the University’s mitigating circumstances policy here, and further guidance on completing the SAC form from the University is included on the form.

Formal Complaint [+]

If you’re not happy with the university’s response to either your efforts to get mitigations put in place informally or, to your SAC form, then you could submit a formal complaint. The University’s complaints process requires students to have evidence of trying to resolve the issue informally first, so we do recommend this as a final step in the process, as opposed to the start of the process.

Remember!

Your lecturers are likely to want to resolve any issues you feel you have directly with you, as they ultimately want you to succeed in your studies. We would always recommend contacting them in the first instance to see what can be done to mitigate any lost teaching time.

To make a formal complaint, you will need to complete the University’s complaints form, which can be found here. You will need to fill out each section within the word limit, and attach any additional evidence you have. For more detailed guidance on the University’s complaints process, please visit our general complaints page.

What should I include?

You will first need to summarise the grounds for your complaint, describing the specific areas of dissatisfaction. This is the most important section of the complaint form so be sure to include detail. It helps to include specifics (such as names, dates etc.), as anything not included here will not be considered when seeking a resolution to your complaint. You should include the dates and titles of any lectures that were cancelled for instance. You also need to include evidence of actions you have already taken to resolve the matter informally, and why you were unsatisfied with the response. It can be useful to include any University regulations that you feel have been broken as a result of your complaint. You also need to include the form of resolution or redress you are seeking.

How long should it be?

There is a 500 word limit on the main part of the complaints form. If you exceed this your complaint may not be considered so it is best to be concise.

2. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) for Higher Education

If you are not satisfied with the University’s efforts to resolve your complaint, another option recommended by the OfS is to contact the OIA. The OIA is an ombudsman scheme which looks at whether a higher education provider has fair procedures, whether it has followed those procedures correctly, and whether the outcome for the student is reasonable.

The OIA has produced some information about their approach to complaints made by students affected by the industrial action, which you can read here. There is no charge to students for lodging a complaint with the OIA.

3. Further Information

Consumer Rights Act 2015 [+]

A summary of the position of students under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 provides clarification about the protection that might be available to students in these circumstances. It is general guidance and does not constitute legal advice to individual students, who are each likely to have different contractual arrangements with their universities depending on the requirements of their course, the extent of the disruption they have experienced, and their own individual circumstances. If you do wish to explore your legal options, you will need to take your own legal advice.

Tuition Fee Refunds [+]

There have been numerous commentators in the media and in the HE sector arguing that students should be entitled to a tuition fee refund for any missed teaching hours.

https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/feb/07/students-demand-compensation-from-universities-over-lecturer-strikes

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/10/students-demand-compensation-lecturer-strikes/

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/students-want-refunds-when-lecturers-strike-mf336qhkn

Students do ultimately have consumer rights and can argue in order to claim a tuition fees refund and/or compensation. The University are likely to argue that they are not in breach of consumer protection law and an independent point of authority will likely have to make a ruling (i.e. a court or the OIA). If you would like a tuition fees refund, you can take legal action against the University, but we would recommend asking for one first through the internal complaints procedure mentioned above, and following this through the OIA.

This is a fairly complex area of law and it is not clear what the outcomes will be for students until we see some students go through the process. Universities and other higher education providers that don't meet their obligations to students may be in breach of consumer protection law – what remains unclear is what exactly will be done about it.

The Office for Students’ regulatory powers in the event of future industrial action [+]

If the industrial action resumes in the future, then the OfS’ regulatory powers are likely to become relevant. Universities whose students access tuition fee and maintenance loans or Tier 4 licences (and that is likely to include all the universities affected by the strike action) will need to register with the OfS over the next few months.

Universities will need to demonstrate that in developing and implementing their policies, procedures and terms and conditions, they have given due regard to relevant guidance about their compliance with consumer protection law. The OfS will be expecting to see that Universities have taken all reasonable steps to reduce the impact of the strike action on teaching, learning and assessment, and have communicated clearly to students what the impact of any industrial action will be, particularly in relation to exams and assessments.