The Government wants universities and colleges to show that they are accountable and responsive. What is unclear is whether it has in mind a collection of vague statements of good intent, along the lines of 'We'll try to be very nice to you when we admit/reject/examine/house you, etc,' (in a word, toothless), or whether it will require these institutions to change any of their procedures (which would involve legislation and cause yet another row about autonomy).
The charters are intended to be be wide-ranging. Separate ones are being planned for England, Scotland and Wales, and civil servants have drawn up a long list of topics to be tackled.
Some are straightforward, such as 'efficient and comprehensible admissions arrangements', whether administered locally or through the national systems. And the charters will expect universities and colleges to give clear information about schemes for financial support of students, stating who is eligible. They will also urge universities to publish their policies for students with special educational needs.
On equal opportunities, the Department for Education suggests that universities and colleges may want to show how they are promoting opportunities for women in areas of study where they are under-represented. Other topics include the institutions' policies as 'good citizens' of their local communities, as contributors to the local and national economy, their links with employers and their practice regarding research and consultancy facilities.
In a background briefing letter sent to universities and other bodies, officials say that the charters will be expected to cover students' rights 'regarding membership or non-membership of student unions'. This will, of course, be necessary if the Government carries out its plan to legislate to make membership of student unions voluntary.
The ground will be muddier, however, when the charters wander into academic issues. They will be expected to cover information about the provision of courses, 'and about the quality of what is provided, including output measures (results and first destinations) where appropriate'. But the universities will resist any attempts to intrude upon their academic autonomy.
Moreover, it is difficult to see how issues affecting quality - 'I failed because I had a duff lecturer' or 'I was badly advised about the courses I took' - can be resolved. And what sanctions or penalties can be imposed if a
university or college falls below acceptable standards?
According to the Student Charter Survey, funded by the Department of Employment, many higher education institutions had already been considering the introduction of student charters, or codes of practice. Some are using them as a way of promoting themselves, but others had decided against them because they feared legal challenges if they were unable to live up to published standards.
Certainly, many institutions are confused about the relationship between the aspirations that may be expressed in a charter and the legal responsibilities that arise from a contract. Most prospectuses contain a small disclaimer, saying that the institution reserves its right to make changes without notice. The clause was included after a few cases of students seeking damages for allegedly false prospectuses.
Dr Dennis Farrington, deputy secretary and registrar of Stirling University, says that rather than a charter, a definitive statement of the rights and obligations of both sides should be made. 'I would like it to be clear what our legal obligations are, whatever a charter might say about our aspirations. Students sign a registration document when they join. It should be quite straightforward to set out rights and obligations then.'
But can issues of quality ever be covered in this way? It could be specified, for example, that a lecturer must not be more than five minutes late for his students, but he or she could not reasonably be required to put up a scintillating performance.
Dr Farrington says it would be possible to go back into case law to see what quality means, or at least what constitutes a professional decision. Doctors, for example, can be judged not to have treated a patient properly because their diagnosis has fallen below an acceptable standard. The same could be done in academe, Dr Farrington says. Nevertheless, he points out, the courts have been reluctant to enter this arena. They have held that they should not interfere with decisions involving academic judgement, unless there has been an abuse of power, or a procedural error.
Universities and colleges are acutely aware of their obligations to students, whether legal or moral. Last year university lecturers, in pursuit of their pay claim, threatened not to mark examination papers. Consequently, vice-chancellors were concerned that they might not be able to award final degrees to students, who might then try to sue them.
Professor M P Furmston, of the faculty of law at Bristol University, has advised vice- chancellors that, when offering students a place, they should insert a disclaimer clause in the agreement. This could say, for example, that 'the completion of the assessment process may be interfered with by industrial action'.
But a university's liability if it decides not to run a degree course is a murky area, Professor Furmston says. A university could avoid liability if it stated in its letter of acceptance that 'it was doing no more than undertaking to use its best endeavours to provide a place, and that offers might be withdrawn at any moment right up to registration'.
But he adds: 'There are obvious commercial disadvantages to being so brutally frank, especially as the risk that the university will in fact not wish to honour its offer must be thought to be very small.'
British Rail can offer discounts if a train is late or withdrawn, but it is difficult to see what sanction could be imposed if a university failed in its performance.
'There has to be some kind of sanction if it is going to work,' said Tony Higgins, of the Polytechnics Central Admissions System. He welcomes the idea of a charter but has pointed out to civil servants that the PCAS, though partially funded by taxpayers' money, is in fact a private company, and so its formal relation to a charter might prove difficult.
'But if a university lost a student's application form, or invited them up for interview and gave them only 10 minutes, there should be some sanction. Any attempt to maintain quality must be welcome.
'Organisations should set themselves criteria against which they must operate,' Mr Higgins says. 'For example, we take an enormous number of calls, and so we aim to have everyone answered within so many rings. You have to have your own criteria by which you judge yourself, then you must stick to it. You start with a mission statement and go on to performance indicators.'
But he adds: 'I would be tearing my hair out if we were constantly whipped as a result of circumstances beyond our control.'
And therein lies the rub. The number of students continues to increase, and so do the tutorial class sizes and the queues for the library, but government funding does not.
With the introduction of the charters, students' expectations will rise, but so too will their dissatisfaction, if only because of the pressure of numbers. What responsibilities and obligations, therefore, will the Government impose upon itself when the charters are published next year? What price a commitment to a fully funded education service?
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