Analysis: Fighting on for independent review right

April 12, 2002

Natfhe is on the warpath over governance structures that reflect the 'dysfunctional distrust of staff'. Claire Sanders reports.

Lecturers' union Natfhe will call for independent review for both staff and student complaints in its governance campaign.

A survey conducted by Natfhe to support its calls for more academic involvement in governance also asked about the Universities UK-Standing Conference of Principals plans for an ombudsman for student complaints.

The survey found that most governing boards have not considered recommendations from UUK-SCOP for a student ombudsman.

Natfhe official Liz Allen said: "The matter appears to have been dealt with at senior management level, despite the fact that it is a governance matter and the subject of a recommendation from the Nolan committee for standards in public life."

Natfhe has long campaigned for a system of independent review to deal with intractable complaints from staff and students.

The union argues that setting up an ombudsman to deal with student complaints alone, as recommended by SCOP and UUK, is a "recipe for chaos and dissent".

Last month, Natfhe's general secretary Paul Mackney wrote to higher education minister Margaret Hodge asking her to consider independent review for staff and students.

"The number of cases when serious complaints about matters of public interest and academic freedom cannot be resolved through internal procedures is very small," he wrote.

"Nonetheless, such cases do occur, and when they do, the lack of effective procedures for taking matters beyond the institution has, in the past, resulted in unwelcome press exposure and 'last resort' means of raising issues such as votes of no confidence in the vice-chancellors and chairs of governors."

Natfhe has not yet had an answer from the minister.

Most old universities have a visitor, whose main role is to determine complaints by a member of the university when other mechanisms have failed. The office is usually referred to specifically in the charter and statutes. If these are silent, the visitor is the Crown.

In new universities there is no such body, and universities are not allowed to delegate responsibility for student complaints to third parties.

Two years ago, ministers said the system lacked transparency and independence, and called for reform amid concerns that the visitor system may breach human rights legislation that guarantees a fair and open trial.

Natfhe is on the warpath over governance structures that reflect the 'dysfunctional distrust of staff'. Claire Sanders reports

Are academics fully involved in governance?

Sir David Watson
Vice-chancellor of Brighton University and chair of UUK's longer-term strategy group

"Professor Shattock's views do not necessarily reflect what is happening in new universities.

"At Brighton, our post-Dearing review of governance increased the staff membership of the board from three to four (not including myself) and the student membership from one to two. This is out of a total of 20.

"Equally, there can be no doubt about the willingness and ability of independent and internal members of the board of governors to ask tough questions of the vice-chancellor and his colleagues."

Christopher Hume
Chairman of the board of governors at Brighton

"Every board of governors must ensure proper academic involvement. Not only do we have strong academic involvement on the board, we also work closely with the academic board."

Stuart Palmer
Pro vice-chancellor of Warwick University

"At Warwick there is a strong partnership between academics and lay governors. Post-Dearing we cut our governing body by about 14 members to 31. There is the vice-chancellor, the two pro vice-chancellors and eight academic members of senate, four of whom are deans of faculty, as well as one member of the non-academic staff and two student members."

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