17 deal blow to ombudsman

April 16, 2004

The credibility of the long-awaited scheme designed to provide a fair and transparent system for handling student grievances is being undermined by a host of universities failing to sign up.

At least 17 universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, are not yet participating in the student complaints ombudsman scheme. Many are sticking with people already nominated to oversee complaints at their institutions.

Greenwich University, whose new vice-chancellor Baroness Blackstone first called for the ombudsman three years ago, has not yet opted to join the scheme.

Some refusniks claimed this week that their systems were simpler and more effective, or said the ombudsman would be blighted by legal and financial problems until it was put on a proper legal footing. Others said that they had not yet decided whether to join the scheme.

The ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, began to take cases on a voluntary basis at the end of March.

Legislation in the higher education bill, currently with the House of Lords, will make the system compulsory if it gets on the statute books.

Old universities with a Royal Charter have a quasi-judicial visitor who acts as the final arbiter of students complaints. The OIA has been designed to replace the visitor, which is seen as an antiquated and secretive system in breach of human rights laws.

Until the legislation is passed, most universities have agreed to voluntarily hand over all student complaints to the OIA, headed by Dame Ruth Deech. But several universities have refused.

An Oxford spokeswoman said the university's procedures "already provide for robust and independent review by persons external to the university" but the university was "now giving careful thought to any adjustment that might be appropriate in the light of the establishment of the OIA".

Cambridge said it had received detailed information about the scheme only two weeks ago, when the OIA formally began its work.

Hertfordshire University, meanwhile, said that until the OIA was given a legal footing, it preferred to stick with its visitor, Lady Archer, the Cambridge academic and wife of disgraced Conservative peer Lord Archer.

Buckingham University, which is private and may never be obliged to sign up, said its system "works efficiently and we do not at present feel the need to alter it".

A number of the post-1992 universities - which do not have visitors - said that while the scheme was voluntary it put them at risk legally and financially.

Steve Bennet, secretary of Anglia Polytechnic University, said APU had been advised not to sign up. "We do not yet have the necessary assurances from professional advisers to take a firm view on the matter. We continue to discuss the matter with them and other universities."

He said the governing bodies of post-92 universities were not allowed to delegate responsibility for complaints to outside bodies and said there were insurance problems because the OIA could recommend compensation.

Michael Reddy, deputy adjudicator at the OIA, said that a small number of universities had not signed up but he expected more than 100 eventually to do so.

"We are aware of some institutions that have chosen not to join the scheme because they wish to keep their visitor or they have developed alternative appeal mechanisms. There is nothing we can do about this until the scheme becomes statutory."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

REFUSNIKS

The following have not yet joined the OIA scheme

* Oxford Universityn Durham Universityn University of the West of England

* Liverpool Hope University College

* HertfordshireUniversity

* Wolverhampton University

* Newcastle University

* Anglia Polytechnic University

* Cambridge University

* Buckingham University

* De Montfort University

* Liverpool John Moores University

* Derby University

* Teesside University

* Greenwich University

* Leeds Metropolitan University

* King's College London For a list of who is participating, go to www.oiahe.org.uk

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