More help for depression, less help for despots: OIA

Mental health, plagiarism, GaddafiPhD on agenda at complaint resolution forum. Jack Grove writes

November 1, 2012

Universities are not doing enough to help students with mental health problems when they face difficulties, the head of the sector's ombudsman has claimed.

Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, said that universities were "very reluctant" to adjust exam timetables or assessment procedures to help people with depression or other psychological issues.

Speaking at a conference on complaints and dispute resolution on 25 October, Mr Behrens said institutions needed to think harder about whether they had made reasonable adjustments to help such students.

"The most pressing issue is late mitigating circumstances around mental health issues," he said. "Very often students who have depression are not in a position to register the fact they have depression.

"Universities have a lot to discuss with each other about disability issues."

Mr Behrens, whose organisation has brought 9,000 complaints to conclusion since it was founded in 2004, said students were increasingly complaining about punishments for plagiarism.

"Universities are not good enough at articulating what they want from students," he said.

He also urged universities to clarify "permissible assistance" rules - an issue raised by the Woolf report, which investigated allegations that Saif al-Islam Gaddafihad plagiarised his PhD thesis for the London School of Economics. "It shows what happens when a university does not deal with issues of postgraduate supervision," he said.

The former Libyan dictator's son applied to the LSE through the defence firm BAE Systems, used researchers to compile data, dictated his thoughts to a secretary and did not live full-time in London, Mr Behrens said.

"Individually, each of these things was ambiguous under the LSE's rules," he said. "We need a system where one student does not get preferential treatment through power, influence and money."

The conference also discussed the introduction of student charters setting out rights and responsibilities. Unease was expressed at the reduction of the university-student relationship to a legal contract placing students in the role of consumer.

James Armit, director for student experience at the University of Bedfordshire, believed the charters could foster stronger engagement with student bodies and help universities to state their values clearly.

But, he said, "if they become compulsory, it will become a tick-box exercise and they will become less specific".

Terry Hoad, past president of the University and College Union, said "employing legalistic language" would not help to improve relations with students.

"By contrast to the US or Europe, we have done well in having a good sense of community [between staff and students] - maybe the greater financial liability incurred by students will change that.

"But we should not forget that other systems compare less favourably to us in terms of student involvement."

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