Baroness Ruth Deech: A troubleshooter takes aim

The higher education ombudsman, tells Lucy Hodges about solving grievances

The number of complaints brought by students against their universities is on the rise as more and more of them object to everything from their degree classifications to over-harsh punishments for disciplinary offences and inadequate tuition. The days of deference are well and truly gone, and a new era of assertiveness has dawned.

Figures to be published later this month by the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education show that the number of complaints last year reached an all-time high of 600. That number can be seen as low, set against a student population of two million, but it is nevertheless increasing year on year.

Baroness Ruth Deech, the academic lawyer who has adjudicated disputes between students and universities for the past four years, is concerned that a disproportionately high number (36 per cent) of complaints are coming from postgraduates. "I am quite worried about postgraduates," she says with a furrowed brow.

"There is a theme to their complaints. It's a mix of 'I was allowed to drag on for too long with this dissertation' and 'My supervision was not very good'. We have cases where people have continued with their dissertations for seven or even 10 years, and been given extensions when it would have been kinder for them to have been cut off earlier."

Baroness Deech, 64, famous for occupying the post of principal of her alma mater, St Anne's College, Oxford, and for having been the first chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, was talking in advance of her retirement at the end of this month.

She has been the higher education ombudsman since 2004 and thinks it is time to call it a day. She will be 65 on 29 April, the day before she retires.

And she is going out with a bang. On 15 to 17 April, she is chairing an international conference on the handling of student complaints, which will be hearing from experts who will be jetting in from all over the world. Home-grown speakers include Lord Dearing, whose report ushered in tuition fees; Baroness Blackstone, the vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich; and Baroness Morgan, a junior minister at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Britain prides itself these days on the way that student complaints are dealt with – a far cry from the years before 2004 when there was a complicated patchwork of structures for hearing students' grievances against their universities, including the visitor's system, which originated in medieval times. This was criticised for being secretive and failing to observe basic human rights. Lord Dearing and the late Lord Nolan thought it should go, and Universities UK agreed.

When the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education was established, it was thought to be the only one of its kind in the world. It is still the only non-governmental national student complaints body, according to Deech. But in Europe, Australia and North America, campus ombudsmen have sprung up. "That is someone who sits on campus behind an open door and is ready to sort out students' grievances at an early stage," she says. "We believe it's a very good idea."

As well as being concerned about the number of postgraduates using her services, Deech is worried about the number of overseas students she deals with. Some of it is to do with language skills, she says. There have been cases of students lacking sufficient command of English to be able to follow the proceedings of the university disciplinary panels before which they appear. Plagiarism is more common in the work of overseas students, and while the institution may remain convinced that plagiarism has occurred (and can prove it with the aid of software), the student can maintain that it is simply a failure to reference their work properly.

There may be cultural differences in ways of learning that explain plagiarism, says Deech. Chinese students, for example, are trained to revere their professors, to copy down their every word and repeat it back. Such a practice would be considered insufficiently critical and creative here, and, more to the point, could be construed as plagiarism and get the student into hot water.

British universities need to ensure then that they prepare international students for what to expect. The difficulties of switching countries and cultures may be underestimated with exchange students, she believes.

"I have concluded from the complaints that I have seen that far more preparation on the part of the sending university and the receiving one is needed, as well as more realistic expectations and a more rigorous English-language requirement," she said in a speech last year.

"European students will be expecting a first-class experience here and the role of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator is to ensure that they get what they were led to expect."

Finally, dyslexia is a problem in universities. Half of all the disabled cases that Deech receives concern dyslexia, and one of the reasons is that the law has changed. It used to be the case that universities had to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students, but that academic standards were exempt. Now they are required to make reasonable adjustments, but competence standards have to be preserved.

That puts the burden on the university to say what they are testing and why. So, for example, if a student says they need more time to take an exam because of their dyslexia, the university must agree, or explain why the time limit is needed to test competence.

It even means that students will be able to question the reasoning behind taking exams altogether, and the law will be very much on their side, according to Deech.

The new higher-education ombudsman is to be Rob Behrens, the complaints commissioner to the Bar Standards Board. Unlike Deech, he will be working full-time, a sure sign that complaints are on the increase and that the independent adjudicator is here to stay. "We have bedded down," says Deech. "And we have overseen a huge expansion of the law."

Universities, Students and Justice, an international conference for those involved in handling student complaints, runs at Clifford Chance LLP, Canary Wharf, London E14, 15-17 April. For more details, visit