It's time to bury this relic of the Middle Ages

The Government's desire to see an ombudsman deal with student complaints at both ancient and modern universities is closer to reality after 15 years of resistance.
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The Independent Online

Universities were given another wake-up call last month when Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, signalled that the Government favoured an ombudsman to deal with the burgeoning problem of student complaints. "Its introduction would provide an independent, permanent, central arbiter and ensure consistency," she said. This is the second time she has prodded the universities publicly over student grievances.

Universities were given another wake-up call last month when Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, signalled that the Government favoured an ombudsman to deal with the burgeoning problem of student complaints. "Its introduction would provide an independent, permanent, central arbiter and ensure consistency," she said. This is the second time she has prodded the universities publicly over student grievances.

The experts rubbed their eyes in amazement. The National Union of Students has been campaigning for an ombudsman for 15 years, but the Department for Education and Employment has never shown the slightest interest in the ombudsman systembefore. Yet here it is suddenly pushing the idea. Why? No one seems to know and the DfEE was not saying. "Everybody recognises that something needs to be done about student complaints," said a spokeswoman. "Ministers feel the ombudsman is the best way to take this forward." And that was all we got.

But the intervention has been beneficial. Finally, universities are being dragged into the modern world. Vice-chancellors find it difficult to agree on anything but they are being shamed into taking action on complaints by the higher education minister and by changes in the law - the Human Rights Act, which comes into force on 2 October, 2000, and the Freedom of Information Bill, which is before Parliament. Lady Blackstone said that the Government would be prepared to table enabling legislation. So, the stage is set.

Early indications from a consultation paper on complaints from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) show increasing support for an ombudsman. More vice-chancellors are in favour of the idea than previously. Others see the ombudsman idea as inevitable in the long run, according to Norman Gowar, chairman of a CVCP working party.

The universities established before 1992 already have a system for external appeal, the archaic procedure known as the Visitor, which most appear happy with, says Professor Gowar, though some would like to see it improved. But the post-1992 institutions have nothing. "Something needs to be done for them," he says. "It, therefore, seems likely that the whole system would move to the same model in the long run." Overnight, it seems, there has been a volte-face. Previously the vice-chancellors were proposing panels to act as final arbiter for the new universities which don't have an appeals system. Nothing was planned to replace the discredited Visitor system in the old universities. Now the VCs are lobbying for an ombudsman for both old and new universities.

One university boss who has undergone his own personal conversion is Professor Graham Zellick, the Vice-chancellor of London University. Several months ago he was in favour of keeping the Visitor system. Now he has changed his mind. At a conference last month he said the Visitor system was doomed, a comment that Lady Blackstone agreed with. "I accept the inevitable," he says.

The reason is that appealing to the old universities' Visitor, which is a relic of the Middle Ages, would probably not comply with new human rights legislation.

The Human Rights Act says that everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent tribunal. The Visitor system falls short. It is not public. Complaints take a long time to resolve and legal processes are not observed. Some Visitors are independent; some not so independent. Many don't have a clue what their role is, says Professor Zellick.

All Oxbridge colleges have their own separate Visitors and one still uses Latin in its procedures. Visitors include the Queen, acting through the Privy Council or the Lord Chancellor, the Queen Mother and the Duke of Edinburgh.

In fact, the Duke of Edinburgh is Visitor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and eight Cambridge Colleges. Other Visitors are archbishops, the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, Lord De L'Isle of Penshurst and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who is Chancellor of Oxford University. Are these really the right people to be sorting out the problems of dissatisfied students?

Anyway the Privy Council says it doesn't want to do the job any more. At a conference last month Alex Galloway, clerk of the Privy Council, said the system represented amateur justice and allowed no right of appeal to the courts. As one of two officials working on complaints he could devote only two days a month to the job.

But there's another reason why Professor Zellick has come round to the ombudsman. He had envisaged the independent panel system as simple, cheap and quick but the CVCP consultation paper suggested otherwise. Jeremy Hoad, the secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, has also swung his weight behind an ombudsman. So has the lecturers' union, Natfhe (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education).

Liz Allen, of Natfhe, says the ombudsman is the best solution because it is independent and will have clout. She is also in favour of an ombudsman because staff wanting to blow the whistle on university malpractice could be referred to it.

Critics of the current set-up are taking heart from a Cabinet Office report published in April which suggested the remit of the Parliamentary Omudsman be extended to cover education. They are further chuffed by the fact that the report proposed a strengthened role for the Ombudsman to ensure complainants get proper redress.

But not everyone is in favour of the idea. John Randall, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, used to work for the Law Society and has first-hand experience of the solicitors' complaints mechanism. "Complaints should be resolved at the lowest level and as soon as possible," he says. "One has to be careful of setting up a hugely bureaucratic and time-consuming system which ends up irritating people."

Tim Birtwhistle, a law professor at Leeds Metropolitan University who has studied complaints systems internationally, says the omudsman sounds like a "quick fix". It would be better, he believes, to simply abolish the Visitor and ensure all universities have robust and fair mechanisms internally for hearing complaints. Students who remained dissatisfied could use the courts, he argues. "The ombudsman seems to be another tier for the sake of it" he says. "Why do we need it?"

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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