Universities' iron lady

Ruth Deech is taking no prisoners. The head of the new higher education adjudicating body (contrary to received opinion) has clout, she tells Jim Kelly - and she's prepared to use it
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Dame Ruth Deech, the university sector's newest regulator, had the kind of education in which the concept of student complaint was unthinkable. She went to Christ's Hospital, West Sussex, which was at the time a strict, single-sex boarding school: "My goodness me," she says, thinking back: "The only boy we ever saw delivered the vegetables on a bicycle once a week, but we all ran to the window to see this spotty youth."

Dame Ruth Deech, the university sector's newest regulator, had the kind of education in which the concept of student complaint was unthinkable. She went to Christ's Hospital, West Sussex, which was at the time a strict, single-sex boarding school: "My goodness me," she says, thinking back: "The only boy we ever saw delivered the vegetables on a bicycle once a week, but we all ran to the window to see this spotty youth."

Then came St Anne's College, Oxford, where she went in 1962 to do law. Again, the idea of complaint was not part of the culture: "I think this is interesting. There has been a sea change in higher education, which is why I think we have been established," she says, speaking of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), the soon-to-be statutory authority dealing with student complaints.

"When I went to college, it was a minority pursuit, especially if you were a woman. The constraints were much greater and we accepted all that - which is odd, looking back on it. But above all we were really grateful to have got in."

She had nothing to complain about at St Anne's, she says, but the concept was in any case unheard of: "I don't think it would have occurred to us - or to many of our contemporaries - to complain. You had to prove that you were worthy and, of course, in parenthesis, it was all free," she says.

The world in which the OIA operates - currently on a voluntary basis; 16 universities have not yet signed up - is very different from Dame Ruth's student days. A degree is no longer a privilege enjoyed by an elite, and the "consumerisation" of education has altered attitudes. At the same time, from 1997, tuition fees have been charged - and are due to rise in 2006 with the addition of hefty, variable top-up fees.

"All that has alerted people to the fact that there is a contract - an expectation - that they are getting something and that the effect of something going wrong could last for many years," says Dame Ruth.

But what kind of contract is it? Some experts compare the situation in higher education with buying a package holiday. You read the brochure, pay the money, arrive at the resort and find the hotel is a half-built ruin with a view of the gasworks. You get satisfaction from a regulator, or you sue. Dame Ruth is quick to find a different analogy. "I think it is more like signing up at a health club. They provide the machinery and facilities, but you and I will not get fit unless we go in there and work to the utmost of our abilities. We can't have the culture where a student thinks: 'I paid £3,000. I've got to have an upper second.'"

The OIA replaces the arcane system of the university Visitor at many of the pre-1992 universities. In this quasi-judicial system, an outsider - often a royal, church or legal figure - acts as final arbiter, often (but not always) to the exclusion of the courts.

Other universities have, until now, usually had their own, internal complaint systems. These will include provision for an appeal - but often only to their own governors. Such systems are open to attack on the grounds of human rights, data protection and freedom of information. The need for reform was signalled by Lord Nolan in his 1996 report on standards in public life; a year later, Sir Ron Dearing concurred after his inquiry into higher education.

How will the new adjudicator operate? The new regulator is not an ombudsman - one point that critics highlight. "We should let universities run their procedures openly and fairly, and we will be checking up on that. We are not a port of first call, which ombudsmen often are; we are the last resort," says Dame Ruth. In almost all cases, the adjudicator will follow a paper trail of previous hearings conducted at university level.

Until now, it had been assumed that the adjudicator would not hold any ombudsman-style hearings of its own, but Dame Ruth reveals a tougher line: "Exceptionally, we could offer a hearing," she reveals. "There might be something that we think is central that has not been noted before." In other words, in some cases the OIA will seek a fresh hearing to try and resolve a case, giving the adjudicator more teeth.

Dame Ruth lists three main areas where the OIA will operate. Firstly, it will be able to rule on academic performance - though this is narrowly interpreted. The OIA, for example, will step in if someone can demonstrate that the marks in an exam have been added up wrongly, or that they have been unfairly barred from entering an exam hall, but it will not seek to change the marks awarded. This will be a huge relief to universities, which have always jealously guarded their integrity in this area. Secondly, the OIA will be able to intervene in disciplinary action against students. Here, Dame Ruth will review cases passed to her; she is, however, unlikely to interfere often. Discretion will be given to universities to run their own systems. Thirdly, the OIA will be dealing with complaints that demand compensation.

Does Dame Ruth fear, as US universities did 15 years ago, that the "consumer culture" heralded by the charging of fees will generate a tide of litigation that will either swamp the OIA, or simply wash into the courts, making the new regulator irrelevant? She points out that the expected rush to the courthouse in the US never happened. She believes the OIA will inherit, and earn, the same respect from the courts as the visitorial system, which - although challenged on procedure - rarely saw its findings overturned. The cost of the courts will also put students off paying large legal fees for a day in court when the OIA offers a system that is, she says, fair, open, fast and cheap.

Moreover, students who might otherwise seek financial redress through the courts will not have to, says Dame Ruth. "We will have the power to recommend to universities that they pay compensation, and at the moment there is no cap on the amount we can order." But she qualifies that power, first by drawing attention to the limitations, for the complainant, of contract law, and, more controversially, by pointing out that universities are strapped for cash. However, she says, they can protect themselves against being drained by financial claims by buying insurance.

But is that fair? Should damages be set in the light of a university's ability to pay? She recognises the point and indicates that work still needs to be done. "I know universities are under considerable financial constraint, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it." To earn respect, the OIA will have to pack a punch. The highest award under the visitorial system was £62,000. An out-of-court settlement involving Aston University is said to have reached £100,000. More worrying for hard-pressed vice-chancellors is the joint £700,000 action currently being fought by 28 students against Oxford Brookes University.

How will the OIA develop after it becomes statutory early next year? Dame Ruth believes that a clear, cheap and accessible system will help the UK's expanding presence in the overseas student market. "I think we will provide a guarantee of a good and fair experience, not only for domestic students but also for foreign students, whom we welcome and who pay very considerable sums." The OIA may also have a key role in the graduate market, where students would also have the right to seek redress from the adjudicator.

In the long term, Dame Ruth hopes that the caseload of the OIA will drop, as its annual reports and championing of good practice are soaked up by the universities' own complaints systems below. But she senses at least one area of growth: "I think that one of the tricky issues we are going to have to face - and we have had one case already - is plagiarism. Universities have got to explain to students what it is, especially given the increasing use of the internet."

The annual reports - to be published without naming that year's erring universities - have been criticised by those who feel the regulator may lack clout. But Dame Ruth indicates that some universities may not be able to hide. She is prepared, she says, to name a university in exceptional cases: "That remains to be seen. Our thinking at the moment is that we would produce anonymised reports. It might be the case that, if a university proves to be particularly recalcitrant, we might name them."

So do students have a friend in Dame Ruth? She certainly seems keen to remind universities that she is prepared to be tough. "I don't feel that I'm batting for either side. I have always been interested in notions of justice - in weighing up the rights and wrongs." Even the refuseniks do not question the OIA's good intentions; many are just holding off for procedural or legal reasons, and will quietly join the scheme when it is statutory. But the OIA will need quickly to establish a reputation for justice and speed - and it must perform well enough to allow the courts to respect its decisions, while making sure it does not become a replacement for the burgeoning university-based complaints systems, or innovative mediation services. With Dame Ruth at the helm, it has a fighting chance.