Bid to beef up staff rights

May 14, 2004

Academics could in future pass grievances to an independent complaints body following proposed amendments from Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers to the higher education bill.

The Lords aims to force the government to expand the role of the new student complaints ombudsman to deal with complaints from university staff not covered by existing employment laws.

Speaking to The Times Higher this week after the first House of Lords' committee stage debate on the bill, Conservative front bencher Lord Forsyth said that the two parties both agreed that the exclusion of staff from the planned scheme was a serious "anomaly".

"Both us and the Liberal Democrats will come back to this issue to find a way to defeat the government," he said. The Tories' 207 peers in the Lords, combined with the Lib Dems' 64, heavily outnumber the 182 Labour peers, but there are 179 crossbenchers who do not take any party's whip.

Under the bill, legislation will be put in place to set up an Office of the Independent Adjudicator for student complaints. The scheme has already been put in place, but is currently voluntary.

The bill will abolish the traditional student complaints system based on the university visitor - a quasi-judicial final arbiter of disputes in old, chartered universities. It is widely seen as archaic and inefficient, and as being a potential breach of human rights conventions that provide a right to a fair and open hearing.

Lord Forsyth said: "If the visitor is an anachronistic relic of a bygone age, why is it okay to allow it to continue to deal with staff complaints?"

He said that it was "extraordinary" that ministers had admitted the inconsistency between staff and students' complaints was a problem during earlier debates in the House of Commons. "But four months later, they have done absolutely nothing about it."

The Tory-Lib Dem consensus emerged following a "probing" amendment to the bill tabled by Baroness Sharp of Guildford, the Lib Dem education spokeswoman in the Lords, and supported by the Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe.

Baroness Sharp said that although staff were protected by law and had recourse to employment tribunals, "there are issues such as those relating to academic freedom that are covered by the visitor system but are outside the employment area where the right of appeal to some independent arbitrator is necessary".

Baroness Warwick, Labour peer and chief executive of Universities UK, opposed the amendment. She said that the OIA was set up to meet a specific need for a fair system for students identified by the Committee of Standards in Public Life and by the Dearing report. "I do not believe that it would be helpful to extend the OIA's remit so radically, and certainly not at this stage," she said.

David Triesman, Labour front- bench peer and former general secretary of the AUT, said that the visitor had adequately dealt with staff concerns about their academic freedom without compromising universities' autonomy and freedom from government interference.

Baroness Sharp withdrew the amendment at committee stage but is expected to resurrect it, with Tory support, at the report stage of the bill if there is no movement from the government. She said: "I moved the amendment to kick the government into taking action on the issue. I hope that they will take the message."

As The Times Higher went to press, the debate was due to move to the crunch issues of top-up fees and the role of the planned new Office for Fair Access in the second of five planned days of debate.

The Tories and Lib Dems' share official policies opposing the principle of top-up tuition fees, but the government is likely to win the day in the Lords, where the majority of peers, including senior Tories, support the principle of variable top-up fees.

But on the issue of Offa, the House is expected to move to seriously water down its powers and will expect significant concessions from government.

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