Complaints: externals inevitable

July 23, 1999

As a member of the Quality Assurance Agency working group on student complaints and appeals not representing any constituency, I would like to commend the QAA officers for their skill and tolerance in trying to reach a workable solution to these perennial problems in what is becoming a public battleground.

My early contribution was to try to switch the debate away from responses to student complaints and academic appeals to a wider consideration of dispute resolution across all aspects of the institution-student relationship. This would include appropriate procedures for dealing with plagiarism and cheating, a reverse complaint by the institution against the student. As one of your correspondents on the Staffordshire University plagiarism case correctly stated, there must be just and equitable procedures in place (Letters, THES, July 9). It must be possible with all we know about complaints handling, alternative dispute resolution procedures and the like to arrive at a workable system.

Modern, well-designed and accessible systems for internal mediation and resolution of complaints and for internal review of academic decisions are essential. If these are in place there should be no need for recourse to external review. But deficiencies remain in internal systems even after years of exhorting institutions to put their houses in order. Some simply do not work, others are tortuous and off-putting. It is obvious that there is no clear understanding of the relative responsibilities of the various dramatis personae in the plagiarism cases. So some form of external review is inevitable.

The medieval visitor procedure that forces students to accept the unreasoned judgment of a remote senior legal figure is indefensible and is rightly doomed. It is difficult to understand why some defend an adversarial system in which students have to battle in the courts to seek adequate explanations of their institutions' actions. External review by experienced and independent persons would be an effective alternative, whether, as I prefer, simply giving a "binding decision" that could be challenged only in the courts on the basis of perversity or a form of ombudsman whose recommendations could not be ignored. Compulsory arbitration, as proposed by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals/Standing Conference of Principals, seems a non-starter. Far from being a threat, external review should be welcomed by institutions whose procedures will be found to be effective and fair.

The next step for institutions doubtful about the adequacy of their internal systems is to inject the relatively small amount of resource needed to undertake a legal audit by competent people. And we should all make a commitment to bring our dispute procedures into the 20th, if not the 21st century.

Dennis Farrington Dunblane, Perthshire

Readers' reactions, p18

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