HIGH-profile university visitors, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chancellor, may expose institutions to legal challenges from students by delegating their powers, lawyers have warned.
The education law firm Mills and Reeve has received requests for help from a number of universities wanting to ensure busy visitors are pulling their weight. They are concerned that students, who are becoming increasingly litigious, may challenge decisions taken by visitors who have delegated decision-making.
Every chartered university in England has a visitor or board of visitors. If the identity of the visitor is not specified in the charter it is the Crown, which in practice means the Lord Chancellor or Privy Council.
They have widespread powers, under common law and statute, to rule on appeals from students against an institution.
It is their job to ensure that a university's procedures have been followed properly and any decisions they make cannot be challenged by the courts, provided they have exercised their powers correctly.
New universities, which do not have visitors, are subject to judicial review on any complaint from students.
But Garry Attle, who specialises in student disputes for Mills and Reeve, said even universities with visitors may be laying themselves open to legal action.
"As visitor, the Archbishop of Canterbury is not really supposed to delegate decisions to someone else," he said.
"But he cannot take on each of these cases in person so he needs to delegate. It is a fine line between whether these people actually make the decision or just do the research and pass it back for him to decide."
"Visitors are in such a protected position it is difficult for their decisions to be challenged. But if he has gone outside his jurisdiction by delegating it down, students may be able to question it. Universities should be alerted to the risk at this stage."
A spokesman for Lambeth Palace said the archbishop took his duties as visitor seriously. "When the archbishop is called upon to exercise his jurisdiction as visitor, he does so strictly in accordance with the provisions contained in the institutions' statutes and with the assistance of his legal advisors," she said.
A working group set up by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to examine university governance, including the role of the visitor, will report around the same time as Sir Ron Dearing.
Chairman of the group, Clive Booth, said while the visitor system worked well for some institutions, others felt there should be better ways of dealing with complaints.