Universities should each set up a single dedicated centre to deal with all disputes involving staff, students and business partners. That is the advice from a report by the Improving Dispute Resolution taskforce, due to be published next week.
Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the taskforce was set up to ensure that universities tackle effectively the growing number and range of disputes that can cost universities dearly in terms of time, money and reputation.
"Disputes are a risk factor for the whole institution. They cost money in legal fees; they take up administrative time; they damage reputation," an early draft of the interim report said.
"In the current world of expanding options and novel opportunities for institutions, for example in forming collaborative arrangements including international partnerships and exploring employer-led curriculum design, the potential for disputes to challenge institutional provision for dealing with them is likely to grow too."
The report claims that the number of different types of dispute - a student complaint about the ability of a tutor, a disputed sacking - has led to a fragmented approach.
"There is still no unified provision or climate of expectation to help institutions of higher education systematically avoid, and resolve appropriately if they occur, disputes in which system elements are a factor," it stated.
"A decision would be arrived at, which might be challenged on appeal. But eventually the complainant would 'win' or 'lose'. The assumption should no longer be made that because disputes are usually adversarial in character they need to be resolved adversarially."
The report, the product of 18 months' work, advocated alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation. "Such alternatives can result in a resolution which is in the interests of all involved, and they can be cheap and speedily arrived at," it said.
Project leader Gill Evans argued that most disputes dealt with by universities escalated because of "the compounding of an initial simple problem by bad handling".
"If you don't want expensive trouble, look at potential risk management and co-ordinate the way that you deal with it," Professor Evans said.
Often, alternative dispute resolution was cheaper and simpler. "If you set it up you can often get it (the dispute) sorted within a week instead of 10 years, and you can avoid very expensive legal fees," she said. "All the university often has to do is to promise to look at its processes so they can say it won't happen to anybody else."