Every university should have its own US-style campus ombudsman or equivalent to deal with student complaints, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education said this week, writes Rebecca Attwood.
As new research revealed the growing threat of student litigation, Ruth Deech, the adjudicator, said students needed a central "open door" so it was clear where they should go when they had problems. Although this might encourage even more complaints, it could also help avoid problems escalating into litigation.
Lady Deech's call came as a study showed that the number of student complaints was continuing to rise and identified a need for universities to introduce more "user-friendly" ways of handling them.
The research, commissioned by education lawyers Eversheds, was conducted by Neville Harris of Manchester University's School of Law.
It found that the handling of complaints was inconsistent and that some university procedures did not meet the legal standard of natural justice and fairness.
Among the institutions questioned, 54 per cent reported a rise in the number of formal complaints over the past 12 months, and 65 per cent said they had been threatened at least once with litigation by a student. Just over half had been sued.
Professor Harris said: "The risk of student complaints and of possible legal action is steadily increasing, with a widespread prediction that top-up fees will increase student demands and expectations and, therefore, result in a rise in complaints."
He said universities needed to shape up to handle complaints effectively.
"Some institutions' arrangements are less fair and effective than they could be."
He called for the sector get together and draft a model of best practice on the handling of complaints.
In an interview with The Times Higher , Baroness Deech said: "I think it would be good if every university considered having a central informal help-point for students, so that there was someone with experience to whom they could turn before the problem escalated."
Campuses could be very "bewildering" places for students, especially for those from overseas, she said.
"There is a lot of help in place, but it is dotted around in different departments. It isn't always clear to them to whom they should turn.
"Student unions do a good job in helping students with problems, and are a good starting point, but they don't necessarily have the power to take issues needing resolution further up the hierarchy.
"There are many types of disputes that I think are suited to an informal, negotiated approach. This would be a single port of call, an open door for students."
Baroness Deech said lessons could be learnt from the model of campus ombudsmen in the US. A campus ombudsman is an independent, neutral member of staff, such as a retired professor or academic lawyer, who aims to resolve problems informally, for example, through mediation.
Ombudsmen received many complaints, she said, but these tended on the whole not to become as legalistic or litigious.
"In the US, it is rare for a student to pursue litigation," Baroness Deech said.
She said that although she believed that mediation could sometimes resolve disputes, the OIA had concerns about the use of external mediators.
"I have some concern over the mediation services I've seen advertised because anyone can set up as a mediator and they can charge for the service.
"I think it is time mediators were centrally registered and quality controlled. We, on the other hand, are a free service to students."