Mediation could be key to resolving campus disputes speedily and amicably, reports Rebecca Attwood.
Long and costly disputes between universities and their staff and students could be a thing of the past if the academics behind a new project get their way.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has handed a £125,000 grant to a team of academics to raise the awareness of the use of mediation and other ways of avoiding costly and often drawn-out legal disputes within the higher education sector.
According to the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, which is a partner in the project, universities spend an average of £100,000 a year on legal fees, most of which goes on defending legal claims against students and staff. Settlement costs can reach six-figure sums.
Mediation is a way of avoiding big legal costs, and advocates say it can also save years of stress and wasted management time.
Unlike arbitration, a mediator does not have the authority to arrive at a decision. Instead, the mediator's job is to find a solution that both parties can agree on.
Joan Whieldon of Wolverhampton University's School of Legal Studies is one of the team who will work on the two-year project, which is called Transforming Policy and Practice in Dispute Resolution in HEIs and is funded by Hefce's leadership, governance and management fund.
She said the project aimed to encourage higher education institutions to overhaul their procedures to ensure that disputes were resolved fairly and speedily. The team will also examine mediation training provision and design training for mediators.
Ms Whieldon said: "In many cases, it will require a huge culture change to existing conflict and dispute procedures, which are generally processed through some form of informal/formal grievance or student complaints procedures.
"The intention is to take the adversarial 'win/lose' and 'us and them'
approach away from the dispute while resolving the problem to the satisfaction of all parties." She said that if a mediation scheme resolved just two or three disputes that might have evolved into litigated cases, it would save the entire cost of the grant provided for the project as a whole.
Mediation is more commonly used by higher education institutions in the US.
Doug Yarn, professor of law at Georgia State University, will offer a US perspective on the project. He said: "As in all organisations, conflict in institutions of higher education is inevitable. The challenge is to resolve it in a way that is the least costly, not merely in economic terms but also with respect to emotional and health costs, the cost to human relationships and the cost of recurring conflicts.
"In contrast to adjudication and dictation, mediation works through consensus. In the 35 colleges and universities that comprise the University System of Georgia, we have been using it effectively to reduce the costs of conflict in disputes ranging from roommate spats to employment discrimination to revolts by faculty against department heads and college presidents. We have prevented costly lawsuits and improved internal relationships and modes of decision-making."
But he added that although mediation gets most of the attention, it is just one of many alternative resolution processes Georgia uses to resolve conflict. Administrators, faculty, staff and students are also taught a variety of constructive problem-solving skills to help them to resolve disputes without resort to third parties.
A spokesman for Hefce said: "Litigation is time-consuming and often stressful and expensive for all parties involved. Alternative approaches such as mediation are used relatively little in higher education at the moment and can offer opportunities to resolve conflicts promptly and in a non-adversarial manner."
'WE FOUND A CREATIVE SOLUTION THAT MET EVERYONE'S NEEDS'
Soran Reader, a lecturer in philosophy at Durham University "I was in dispute with Durham that was solved by mediation. We signed a compromise agreement, so I can't give details.
"Before mediation, the dispute was adversarial, with complaints and countercomplaints escalating, and it might have ruined my career or the university's reputation. But we agreed that court would be bad for both sides. Lone claimants rarely win against institutions. Even when they do, the rewards are small. Work is set back, relationships are ruined and reputations damaged as imperfections are publicly exaggerated to 'win'.
"Mediation is better than court, but it is not easy. A mediator is not interested in the rights and wrongs but in what can be agreed. He or she pushes you to see where you will give, and as an employee you are vulnerable.
"We found a creative solution that met everyone's needs.
"Mediation was great. It can save a huge amount of public money, not to mention personal suffering. Early mediation can prevent disrupted work. In higher education, there is a reluctance to acknowledge that things are not perfect, which may reflect how universities are rewarded for presenting a positive picture.
"It is well known that women and other groups face difficulties in getting hired, tenured and promoted, and that higher education institutions can find such difficulties hard to manage but are afraid to be open about such problems.
"They should be open and work to solve things."
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