Cabinet Office red-tape watchdogs are likely to widen their review of higher education to include plans for a university ombudsman after lecturers' and students' leaders attacked the vice-chancellors' proposed system as badly flawed.
The Universities UK plan for a system of "independent review" of student complaints has been criticised as a fudge by the National Union of Students, the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe, the lecturers' union. The NUS said it was concerned that the planned ombudsman will be toothless, allowing universities to opt out of the system or to ignore its recommendations.
Lecturers' unions share their concerns about the ombudsman's potential effectiveness and are angry that the plans ignore staff complaints, leaving them with an out-of-date system. UUK's consultation ends today.
The unions are now looking to the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force, which this week confirmed it will conduct a review of higher education, to include staff and student complaints systems.
The AUT is credited with securing the review after lobbying by its former general secretary, David Triesman, a member of the task force until he took over as Labour Party general secretary.
AUT spokesman Andrew Pakes said: "The task force is to look at the overall burden of accountability in higher education. We are determined to help create a sense of joined-up thinking. It makes sense to include complaints."
The AUT's list of concerns over UUK's plans is long. "It is ill-considered to view staff and students as different when it comes to natural justice," Mr Pakes said.
The UUK review was ordered by the government, which said that the ancient visitor system for dealing with staff and student complaints in old universities was outdated and "doomed".
"At the moment, UUK is saying that staff should still have to go through the correct, medieval corridors of power with their complaints," Mr Pakes said.
Student leaders are concerned that the UUK's plans may allow the visitor to survive for students complaints too. The paper raises the possibility of the new independent review system operating alongside the visitor and offers a number of opt-out clauses.
In its submission to the UUK consultation, the NUS said: "NUS would seriously question the validity of a voluntary system where all higher education institutions would have the choice to participate or not in the arrangement... The independent reviewer's decision should be binding. The visitor system should be abolished and replaced with a national, publicly funded higher education ombudsman."
The task-force review will be part of its programme of work for 2001-02. The task force will look at the Quality Assurance Agency and all aspects of accountability and regulation, including the research assessment exercise. Ministers are obliged to respond to all of its recommendations.