Early dispute solutions

October 1, 1999

Baroness Blackstone's recent speech to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals served only to emphasise that a proper complaints procedure is now a minimum requirement for universities in dealing with students as consumers. Yet this is in many ways a last resort. Some universities have been considering a more constructive approach by employing two tools for early intervention.

The first is mediation. As a neutral, the mediator can introduce a powerful new dynamic into an intractable dispute. Mediation in relation to an internal complaints procedure is difficult to prescribe. Perhaps the best approach is to reflect the spirit of recent procedural changes in the courts in relation to civil justice. Here at each significant stage of the proceedings parties have to consider the question, "Would mediation now be appropriate?" Many disputes can be prevented, if the relationship between an institution and its students is embodied in a clear and enforceable student contract, whose terms, including relevant procedures, are consistently implemented.

Many institutions fail to incorporate properly the terms they intend to include. Often this is because the terms are made available to students too late and after a place has been accepted. On other occasions, departments may attempt to impose their own rules, charges and procedures that are not part of the contract. Sometimes no account has been taken of the Unfair Contract Terms Regulation that requires institutions, as suppliers of services, to act fairly, justly and equitably in light of their relatively powerful positions.

Baroness Blackstone is right to identify students as "critical consumers". In response, the best strategy is to ensure the student contract makes recourse to the formal complaints procedure largely unnecessary.

John Boardman

Head of education, Eversheds North

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