A referee with 50 games on the go at once

September 24, 2004

Profile: Ruth Deech, student administrator

Six months after calling time on a 34-year career at Oxford University one might expect to find Dame Ruth Deech taking things a little easier.

Instead, the former head of St Anne's College has landed herself one of the hottest seats in higher education as the new national student complaints ombudsman. "It's really rather exciting," she said with what seems to be a trademark knack for understatement.

The role of independent adjudicator for higher education, as it is formally known, is emphatically not the sleepy descent into retirement some commentators assumed it would become when 61-year-old Dame Ruth accepted the job.

"Although it's still very early days, we've had many, many tens of thousands of hits on our website, we get hundreds of phone inquiries and, after a filtering process where we assess who is eligible to make a formal complaint, we have 50 cases on the go," she said.

Her office, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, is poised to announce details of the first four cases brought to a formal conclusion.

Although there will be no naming and shaming, the anonymous reports, and the dozens more in the pipeline, will begin to build a picture of the state of British higher education at a crucial crossroads in the run-up to the introduction of top-up fees in 2006.

The ombudsman will be the ultimate court of appeal for students who have exhausted a university's internal complaints procedures. The system replaces the archaic, quasi-judicial visitor system in old universities and should cut down on costly court action in new universities.

The OIA has its work cut out. Today's students are keen for their considerable investment, tuition fees and loans for living costs to pay off with a degree certificate that will stand them in good stead in the jobs market. At the same time, universities continue to find themselves under financial pressure. The potential for student complaints is obvious.

But Dame Ruth is anxious to nip in the bud the consumerist attitude among many students that they are somehow owed a good degree merely because they have paid fees for a course.

She said: "A colleague of mine said the student contract is like booking a holiday - you get your brochure, pick the hotel and it promises sea, sun and sand. But when you get there, you find there's a motorway next door and the hotel is not built.

"I do not agree with this analogy. The contract is much more like joining a health club - they provide the equipment and training, but you will not get fit unless you go and really put in the effort. It's a participatory process, not a passive one-sided consumer contract."

Having said that, universities and colleges must come up with the goods.

"It's very important that students are properly treated, especially foreign students. Otherwise they'll go home and tell everyone not to go to study in Britain," she said.

While the cases Dame Ruth has looked at are varied, a large number are about academic results. For instance, some students may be concerned that they got a lower second when they believed they deserved higher.

But Dame Ruth said the ombudsman, like the visitor and the courts, cannot and will not second guess a university's academic judgement.

"We are not going to say to someone - you've got to give this student a first," she said. "But we can order a remarking or another exam if we think there has been bias or procedural errors."

She has also been struck by the volume of complaints about plagiarism - mostly from students who are happy to admit to having done it but are unhappy with the punishment.

Dame Ruth said: "A student may say: 'Yes, I admit I stole someone else's disc, I've plagiarised, but why was I expelled when my friend who did the same thing was allowed to retake?'"

She said that at the moment she could look only at whether the universities applied their procedures properly. But in future - as the case file builds up - she hopes to offer best-practice guidelines to improve the consistency of universities' reactions to plagiarism.

So how are the universities faring against the tide of student grievances? "It's six of one and half-a-dozen of the other," she said.

"Sometimes we find that a university does not take its own procedure as seriously as it should. But the problem with the student is that no student complainant ever believes that there is anything wrong with the work they have done."

Treading a fine line between the institution and the student is something that, in retrospect, Dame Ruth believes she has spent a lifetime working towards.

Dame Ruth, who was awarded a first in law from St Anne's in 1965, returned five years later to teach at the college and worked her way up to become warden in 1991, a post she held until taking the OIA job.

During this time she chaired the staff grievance panel at Oxford University and has chaired National Health Service complaints panels.

But perhaps her most high-profile role was as chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority between 1994 and 2002. Dame Ruth fought three major cases up to the High Court, including the unsuccessful attempt to prevent Diane Blood from using the sperm of her dead husband to get pregnant.

Dame Ruth omits to mention that as a governor of the BBC she was at the heart of the explosive row between the corporation and the Government that saw the departure of Greg Dyke, its then director-general whom she had supported throughout, and Gavyn Davies, its chair of governors.

"I've actually spent a lot of time sitting on panels trying to sort things out," she says, employing her gift for understatement.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM St Anne's College, Oxford

MY FIRST JOB WAS at the new Law Commission from 1966 to 1967 under chairman Leslie George (now Lord) Scarman working on reforming divorce law

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS steering a new organisation towards the successful and peaceful resolution of disputes

WHAT I HATE MOST is travel. I am incensed by the dirt, unpunctuality and cost of transport

IN TEN YEARS' TIME I hope to be alive and healthy.

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