Students in colleges have no one to complain to – so is it time for a watchdog?

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The Independent Online

All is not well in the world of further education. Dissatisfied learners who exhaust a college's internal complaints system have little option but to turn to the Learning and Skills Council, which is due to disappear by 2010, or their MP – who will probably refer their enquiry to the local LSC.

If students and some college leaders have their way, however, further education could soon have an independent ombudsman in the same way as other public services. Proposals from the National Union of Students for a new watchdog with similar powers to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), which oversees higher education, have been well received in the sector.

Talks on the scheme began this week, and if they succeed, the ombudsman could form part of a blueprint for self-regulation in FE being drawn up by an umbrella company including the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Forum.

The OIA has become an integral part of the university sector since it was set up three years ago, according to Beth Walker, NUS vice president for further education. "It's accessible and student-focused and has shown that it can work. There are independent adjudicators in health and other services. It's something that's missing in FE."

According to the NUS, an independent watchdog will be more important once young people are required to remain in education or training beyond the age of 16. The FE system is also about to become more fragmented, with local authorities paying for pre-19 courses and a new Skills Funding Agency taking responsibility for adult learning.

"I don't see complaints as a bad thing," says Walker. "Students have every right to voice their concerns. We want to ensure that whatever we have in FE is independent and retains some credibility."

If higher education is anything to go by, an FE ombudsman will be kept busy. Last year, the number of complaints made to the OIA rose by 25 per cent to 734. Two- thirds concerned academic results. One quarter of complaints were upheld, and the adjudicator recommended that complainants receive a total of £173,000 in compensation.

Graham Moore, principal of Stoke-on-Trent College, and chair of the 157 Group, which represents England's biggest FE colleges, sees an ombudsman as a step forward. "We have to be accountable and have systems that inspire confidence," he says. "If it keeps people out of the courts, it will be extremely useful."

The proposals for self-regulation are being drawn up by a company called The Single Voice, chaired by former college principal Sir George Sweeney, who led drives to cut bureaucracy in FE. Sweeney declined to comment on the ombudsman idea until the proposals are submitted to the Government next month.

But the Association of Colleges is backing the idea. "Every public service needs to develop robust procedures for complaints," says Sue Dutton, the AoC's deputy chief executive. "We agree that students should have access to independent scrutiny if they feel the system has failed them."

The LSC's annual learner survey, published in July, showed satisfaction levels at 90 per cent. Seven out of 10 students spoke highly of their college or training provider, leading some to question whether an ombudsman is needed.

Alistair Thomson, senior policy officer at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, says the jury is out. "I can see some value in public scrutiny, but I'm not sure that the volume of complaints would justify the expense," he says.