Student processes: OIA guidance on collaborations between higher education providers and others

Last month the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (the OIA) published revised guidance within its Good Practice Framework, directed at higher education providers in England and Wales delivering learning opportunities in partnership with other providers or organisations.

The updated Framework (“Delivering learning opportunities with others”) offers further guidance aimed at such providers in the operational context of a partnership with the handling of, for example, internal processes, complaints, and academic appeals. The guidance applies to the delivery of higher education by several providers or partnerships, including transnational education, apprenticeships, student exchange programmes and joint or dual degree programmes, as well as offering guidance on matters such as placements and other third party arrangements.  The guidance broadly refers to all these types of arrangements as “partnerships” (which is also the approach adopted in this briefing); but whilst these arrangements will be supported by legal obligations and agreements, they are not typically a “partnership” in the strict legal sense. 

The revised guidance also sets out particular principles for addressing students’ concerns in such partnership arrangements, which providers will need to apply in each specific context. The OIA has outlined that the updated guidance remains principles-based and is intended to aid higher education providers to develop and follow fair processes, and to assist with evaluation of such processes. Further, the OIA suggests the guidance could also be a useful resource for students and those who advise providers.

As summarised within the OIA’s published statement here, the main developments contained within the revised guidance are: 

  • Further guidance on how overarching good practice principles apply in partnership contexts. 
  • Making it clearer that the principles apply to student-focused internal processes, such as fitness to practise and disciplinary procedures, as well as complaints and academic appeals procedures.  
  • Expanded guidance on considering complaints, appeals and other internal processes through the life cycle of a partnership, particularly around key points in partnership relationships and when those might come to an end. 
  • Updated case studies reflecting learning from the OIAs casework.   

The updated guidance retains focus on ensuring good practice is in place at all times, and in particular at the time of entering into the partnership. Partners should agree and make it clear who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of its complaints, appeals and other internal processes, and the extent to which each partner retains an oversight of the outcomes of those processes. Good communication between partners is essential to ensure responsibilities are identified when setting up those partnerships, including gathering/sharing of information, setting expectations of particular staff, and what remedies will be offered (by whom) at the conclusion of any internal process. Students should be clear as to which partner is responsible for responding to any such complaints, appeals or other internal processes. 

The guidance reflects further on the overarching principles of good practice, specifically with focus on the following:

  • Clarity – students should know what is expected of them and what they can expect from providers. Partners should ensure expectations of students are compatible and make it clear to students where there is any difference to policies which might apply to them. Providers should publish clear information about their processes.
  • Timeliness – students should not be expected to engage with each provider at an informal, formal and review stage. Timeframes should not restart when a matter moves from one partner to another. Good practice indicates decisions are made and communicated to students rapidly.  The guidance maintains good practice indicates completion of formal and review stages of internal processes within 90 calendar days.
  • Informal resolution – in many contexts it remains appropriate for students to be provided an opportunity for informal resolution by the delivery provider they are familiar with.
  • Advice, guidance and support - staff should have a good understanding of how the procedures operate and the possible outcomes so that when students approach them, they have an appropriate level of awareness. Support for students should also be signposted appropriately. Partners should have mechanisms in place for regularly reviewing policies and procedures and agreeing any changes which impact students. Providers may consider offering joint training on the operation of complaints, appeals and other internal processes and it is good practice for all staff to have “some understanding” of those processes to direct students to appropriate information.
  • Formal investigation - partners should ensure it is clearly agreed who is best placed to gather information at this stage, who has authority to make decisions, and whether any regulatory contexts prevent providers from delegating responsibility for such decisions. Linked with this is training.
  • Final review - the awarding partner should ensure a consistent approach and ensure that it regularly reviews the operation of the partnership arrangements in respect of such processes and takes steps to address any concerns.

When arrangements between partner providers substantively change or end, the guidance directs that providers should have in place plans that outline how the risks to students of any significant change will be managed. Whatever the circumstances of the change to the partnership are, students’ ability to raise complaints/appeals should not be negatively impacted. Providers should communicate any transitional arrangements for those processes clearly.

The updated guidance can be found here.


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