Heads accept visitors doomed

July 28, 2000

Vice-chancellors are ready to accept an ombudsman to handle complaints by students and staff, as old universities reluctantly concede the demise of the visitor system, writes Phil Baty.

Early results from a consultation by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals indicate increasing support for an independent adjudicator, with a single ombudsman emerging as a preferred option.

Ministers appear ready to introduce the necessary legislation and changes to old universities' statutes to abolish the visitor system in which peers, bishops, and often the Queen, have quasi-judicial authority to rule on complaints.

The change of heart is understood to have been hastened by European human rights legislation, applicable in Britain from October, which many people believe will rule the visitor system unfair.

Pressure from student groups and lecturers' unions seems to have convinced ministers that a change is needed.

Higher education minister Tessa Blackstone proclaimed the visitor "doomed" at a conference last month.

A CVCP working group on complaints procedures proposed independent review panels. But their tentative suggestion that an ombudsman could be introduced in the long term caught the imagination.

Natfhe, the lecturers' union, the National Union of Students and the National Postgraduate Committee have all made strong demands for an ombudsman. And the CVCP reported this week that vice-chancellors are being persuaded.

"There are more vice-chancellors in favour of an ombudsman than before," said Norman Gowar, chairman of the CVCP working party. "Some respondents who do not call for an ombudsman straightaway indicate that they view that as inevitable in the long term."

He said that most vice-chancellors in old universities "appeared happy" with the visitor system, but were ready to accept an ombudsman as a sectorwide solution.

"The legislation for the post-92 institutions made no provision for independent appeal," said Professor Gowar. "It seems likely that the whole system would move to the same model in the long run."

The CVCP said there was still concern about the costs of an ombudsman, but added that the Department for Education and Employment was ready to assist to overcome the legal and constitutional obstacles.

The CVCP will consider the report in October in line with ministers' demands.

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