A single public sector ombudsman could spell end for visitor

August 18, 2000

Higher education looks set to be brought under the stewardship of a new public sector ombudsman, spelling the end for the archaic and largely discredited visitor system, writes Phil Baty.

An influential committee of MPs has recommended that education come under the "commission for public administration", proposed in the Cabinet Office's review of public sector accountability, published last week.

The plans for a single commission would bring together most of the public sector ombudsmen, joining the health service, Parliament and local government. It would offer a clear and flexible "customer focus" for complaints against public sector bodies.

In a report on the Cabinet Office's plans, the parliamentary public administration committee specified that education, as "an area of the public sector where ombudsman schemes remain undeveloped", ought to be "brought within a new structure". Although higher education is not technically part of the public sector, some believe all publicly funded institutions should be included.

The Parliament ombudsman Michael Buckley, was one of the first to propose the single ombudsman commission. He told the committee: "I would say very strongly (that) if there is to be a new ombudsman for higher education, I think it is very important that that ombudsman should be part of the new commission or we shall be well on the way to recreating precisely the problem that led to our proposals in the first place."

Ministers expect to see firm proposals from vice-chancellors before the end of this year. They are willing to provide the legislative support to help set up a higher education ombudsman. The Cabinet Office will be consulting until late September.

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