Independent check call for complaints

March 27, 1998

Vice-chancellors respond to Nolan on student complaints

AN INDEPENDENT check is needed on university's internal systems for handling student complaints, vice-chancellors have agreed.

A university's own arrangements should be enough to judge the merits of a complaint but there should be independent scrutiny to check they are adequate and have been properly applied and observed in each case, says a draft report on handling student compalints from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

In universities that have Visitors such a system already exists. But in those which do not - new universities, Scottish universities and some pre-1992 universities - there is no system of independent review.

The CVCP report says that relying on courts of law to review internal procedures can prove slow, time-consuming and expensive. Disputes which are not settled quickly are more likely to lead to bitterness and acrimony.

Universities therefore need to think carefully about whether their arrangements for handling student complaints satisfy the principle of independent review, as recommended by Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life.

Vice-chancellors do not support a uniformly imposed central system of independent review. They agree with the Nolan committee that a full-time ombudsman for higher education cannot be justified.

The report proposes instead that universities check their complaints procedures against general principles set out by the CVCP, and consider introducing, where necessary, one of six options for independent review of internal arrangements.

The CVCP stresses that none of the options should allow any independent person or body to make judgements on academic matters.

The working group that produced the report spent a long time grappling with the pros and cons of the sixth option, arbitration, which the CVCP has concluded is "worthy of serious consideration".

Legal advisors Eversheds suggested that a central funding system, administered by the CVCP, could be set up to handle the costs of arbitration. Alternatively, individual universities could work through a scheme established by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and agree that the institute recover its costs from the university. Such arrangements would defeat the argument that students are placed at a disadvantage in arbitration due to lack of legal representation, said Eversheds.

Eversheds concluded that "there appear to be no major obstacles to arbitration as a method of independent review", although the range of cases arbitration could handle and the role of the Visitor would need to be carefully considered.

Other options include the CVCP creating a panel of people with higher education experience to hear students' appeals. Each panellist could be someone with appropriate experience.

A local variation could be to involve one or more people from outside a university to join the internal body dealing with a complaint at the final stage.

Some institutions have already created the post of unofficial visitor to review complaints procedures. This role is determined by the institution, whereas the jurisdiction of a true visitor is determined by common law and Act of Parliament. The report points out that since the unofficial visitor is appointed by an institution it could be questionable whether the role was truly independent. But it also says there are too many practical obstacles to consider seriously extending the true visitorial system to all institutions.

Another possibility is for institutions to appoint an institutional ombudsman, although there may not be much difference between this and the unofficial visitor. This approach has already been adopted by a number of Australian and Canadian universities.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES FOR COMPLAINTS PROCEDURES

* A clear, simple complaints procedure should be brought to the attention of every student

* The procedure should be approved by the governing body

* Complaints should be raised initially with the responsible individual who has handled the matter

* If still unresolved, the complaint should be raised with a head of department

* If this does not resolve the issue, a formal complaint may be lodged with a senior administrative officer who will consult the head of department

* The designated officer should then make inquiries and submit a report to a person appointed by the vice-chancellor who will make a decision if the dispute continues

* If the complainant remains dissatisfied, he or she may request that a complaints committee be established, chaired by an independent member of the governing body, whose decision should be final as far as internal procedure is concerned. Membership of the committee might include a senior member of staff and possibly a student

WHAT THE NOLAN COMMITTEE SAID

"It is not going too far to say that it is no longer sufficient for public bodies to take good decisions; they must be seen to do so, and be prepared to let an independent person or body review their activities if necessary. We have to consider how applicable this concept is to higher and further education."

"Students in higher education institutions should be able to appeal to an independent body, and this right should be reflected in the higher education charters."

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