Is it time to name universities that don't make the grade?

As complaints by university students continue to soar, Lucy Hodges meets the ombudsman who is considering whether to expose the worst-offending institutions
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The Independent Online

The number of students complaining about universities has risen sharply as they have been forced to pay fees, become more knowledgeable about their rights and less deferential to authority. Last year, complaints to the student ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, shot up 23 per cent to 900. This year's figure is expected to show another surge, says the adjudicator, Rob Behrens.

Although the total is low, set against a student population of 2 million, it is nonetheless increasing annually. The ombudsman scheme, in existence for five years, replaced a discredited patchwork of arrangements for hearing student grievances, including the visitors system, which originated in medieval times and was criticised for its secrecy and failure to observe basic human rights.

The new system is, in turn, criticised by complainants for being a "toothless tiger", partly because the vast majority of complaints are rejected and because financial compensation for those that are upheld is relatively modest. The adjudicator has recommended a total of £670,000 in financial compensation in five years, including a case last year where a university had to pay £45,000 to a PhD student who was unable to complete her doctorate.

Behrens believes the scheme is working pretty well, given the results of a review in which some 3,000 students, complainants and university staff were consulted. In a report of that review, published today, he proposes 28 ways to make the complaints scheme better. "There is no room for complacency," he says. "There are a lot of things we need to do to continue to be user-friendly and flexible."

The consensus of respondents to the review is that the ombudsman is independent, produces high-quality decisions and gives value for money, costing just over £2m a year. But complainants have a number of grouses. They believe they should have direct contact with their case-handler while a complaint is being considered because they want to explain their case and feel they cannot do this properly in a paper-based system. Behrens has agreed to look at this but cautions that the adjudicator must maintain impartiality and keep a tight rein on costs.

Complainants also believe the awards do not compensate students enough for the detriment they suffer – and Behrens believes he should examine that as well. Some complainants are unhappy that the ombudsman cannot investigate academic judgement, but Behrens does not believe this should change.

Some student unions are unhappy with the fact that universities provide the funding for the ombudsman's office, arguing that it promotes the idea that the adjudicator is not independent. Behrens suggests that student unions could contribute to the cost as well, but argues that this is not very realistic. He is prepared, however, to look at the idea of having a case-handler's fee to get round the idea that universities whose students do not use the ombudsman very much are subsidising those that do.

Behrens is proposing to have another student member on the council of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, and plans to allow private universities such as Ashridge to join the scheme. The scheme is also going to include students on foundation degrees at further education colleges. But its boldest proposal, which will annoy many universities, is to publish its adjudications, naming the university involved but keeping the student's identity secret, as the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman does. At present, Behrens publishes summaries with no names but is worried, as he explains in today's report, about whether this is enough.

A survey of complainants shows overwhelming support (79 per cent) for the names of universities to be published. Some higher education institutions such as City University are also in favour. "Increasing transparency is genuinely educative," says the report. But of the 61 submissions that the adjudicator received which opposed the publication of his decisions, 55 came from universities. Many of them opposed openness on the grounds that it would damage their reputations. They said it would lead to league tables of complaints being compiled. The University of Bath thought that publication would lead to "naming and shaming".

Behrens says he was surprised when he took over the ombudsman job from Baroness Deech in 2008 to discover that the names of universities that had transgressed were not made public. "In the areas of the Civil Service and the law, those cases are published," says Behrens, who came from the Bar Standards Board, where he was complaints commissioner.

He is proposing to consult further on two options: whether to publish details of decisions, naming universities; and/or whether to make public the number of complaints it has received annually for each university, together with details of the outcomes. If such information were made public, it would generate a great deal more interest in university complaints. The media would pick up on such stories and universities would be more under the spotlight.

That is precisely why universities don't like the idea, but Behrens says: "My job is not to be popular but to do things that would add to the credibility of the scheme."

Bad education: Students' biggest complaints

Most complaints concern academic matters, for example, students' degree classifications. Last year's annual report detailed one student who complained that he would have got a better degree if lecturers had not gone on strike in his final year.

That complaint was rejected, but a grievance that was upheld concerned a student, and most of that student's class, who complained about the quality of their teaching. The ombudsman decided that the university had not "punctually and appropriately" investigated the case, and awarded the student £3,500 in compensation. Other grievances are about "service" issues – contractual obligations a university has not honoured – such as that from a student whose hall of residence was being renovated when she was trying to revise for her finals.

A third big category is plagiarism, when students complain that they did not have enough opportunity to rebut allegations that they cheated, or were punished too severely.