Leader: Medieval visitors have no place in a modern future

April 6, 2001

From the leading lights of British higher education, there is talk of ambitious change throughout the sector. Mergers, e-universities, foundation degrees, new approaches to credit accumulation and transfer are all under discussion.

But what price action? The apparent impossibility of removing the medieval barnacle of the visitor system, established originally to check heresy in Oxbridge colleges, suggests that higher education's reforming zeal may be sound and fury signifying little. What is proposed is a feeble compromise whereby university visitors would be asked to refer student complaints to an ombudsman paid for by universities, or preferably by the government. What they should do about staff complaints is unclear.

Arguments for reform leading to a genuine complaints system were strengthened with the arrival of the Human Rights Act. The act's criteria of justice are not served by recourse to assorted archbishops, legal luminaries and royal personages, making trouble in the courts a racing certainty. The only argument for keeping the visitors is that doing away with them requires parliamentary time for the initial legislation and prolonged procedures through the Privy Council to alter charters and statutes. For sound reasons to do with protecting autonomous institutions from political interference, changing universities' constitutions is difficult. But that is not a good reason for keeping this anachronism.

If the visitors remain, they will either be reduced to postboxes for the ombudsman, or they will carry on considering complaints with resulting confusion, delay, duplication of effort and possible legal challenge. Neither is satisfactory.

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