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

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Early Years Teachers Required

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Early Years Teachers ...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Qualified Early Years Teachers Required

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualifed Early Years ...

Do you want to work in Education?

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energetic gradu...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little