Clamour to scrap system

January 21, 2000

Student leaders, education lawyers and politicians have stepped up calls to abolish the ancient visitor system for resolving staff and student complaints in the old universities.

The redoubled efforts come in the wake of Whistleblowers' revelations last week that the Lord Chancellor's department has admitted it cannot handle university complaints properly.

And the debate is set to intensify as further documents obtained by The THES show that the Privy Council, which also acts as visitor to more than a dozen universities, has also admitted that it has no clear procedures for handling university cases.

Last week Whistleblowers revealed that the LCD, which acts as visitor on behalf of the Queen to 17 universities, had conceded in a report that the system had failings and that "demand had outstripped resources".

Now it has emerged that the deputy clerk to the Privy Council, K. P. Makin, wrote to one student complainant in 1997: "The question of procedures would be one to be settled at the time in light of the circumstances of the individual case." The student commented: "They are making it up as they go along."

This week Jeremy Hoad, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, said: "To see the number and extent of the failings of the system in black and white was shocking." A spokesman for the National Union of Students said the story strengthened its campaign to scrap the visitor system.

Dennis Farringdon, head of university lawyers network UCELNET, said the shortcomings identified also apply to the archbishops and bishops, who also act as university visitors. "The bishops in particular are operating in the dark," he said.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Phil Willis said the "medieval" system should be scrapped.

Letters, page 17

Strange case resolved as OU raises final grade

After more than a year of complaining and campaigning, Open University graduate Linda Strange can finally claim her first-class honours degree.

One solicitor's letter threatening legal action against the OU appears to have succeeded where more than 40 personal letters of complaint fell on deaf ears.

When Ms Strange received the results of a German language course in 1998, she immediately complained that the final grade had not been calculated according to the rules as they appeared in the formal student literature, an error that would have cost her a first-class degree. The university repeatedly refused to upgrade her course result.

"You have exhausted the university's appeals and complaints mechanisms and the university must, therefore, now consider this matter closed," she was told by the pro vice-chancellor, Allan Cochrane, last August.

And last November, the vice-chancellor, Sir John Daniel, reiterated: "The university regards this matter as closed and will not be able to continue this correspondence."

Last month solicitors Mizler Wright wrote to the OU to claim that Ms Strange was

entitled to a new grade, or damages. She would seek judicial review if the university failed to accept the grade was incorrect within 21 days. One week later, the OU confirmed the grade had been raised.

Professor Cochrane told The THES this week: "We have accepted that Linda Strange had a valid complaint regarding some ambiguity in the course literature... However, if we took action to remedy Ms Strange's complaint, we were obliged to take similar action for all affected students on the course, so we had to find a solution that did not disadvantage anyone else... we regret that this took longer than we would normally like to resolve a student complaint."

Phil Baty

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