Nolan hears of visitor need

February 2, 1996

Higher education needs a pool of legal experts with a knowledge of the sector to act as visitors to investigate complaints of malpractice, the Nolan committee on standards in public life has been told.

The present visitor system is not responsive enough to the demands of a system which is seeing an increasing number of complaints from academics whose careers are destroyed by commercial regimes in universities and colleges, it was claimed.

New restrictions on the powers of the visitor and problems in finding suitable people to investigate allegations mean institutions can effectively block demands from staff for an inquiry into complaints about mismanagement, say members of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards.

The Nolan committee's soundings from Welsh institutions found problems with the visitor system were a common concern.

Victor Carney, former registrar for the University of Wales, Swansea, said the process of investigating complaints made in the past was "very, very protracted" because the Privy Council had to find someone to make a judgement for the Queen who is the university's "visitor".

Emrys Evans, chairman of the university council, said a good case could be made for establishing a regular channel with the ombudsman's office to deal with such cases.

"With an ombudsman's office that was already in operation there would be case law to refer to and there would be experience at hand to deal with such disputes and no need to start from scratch," he said.

Gill Evans, representing CAFAS, said the present "untidy provision of visitors here and no visitors there" allowed institutions to disadvantage staff members who asked too many awkward questions, without fear of investigation.

"Again and again we find someone in a senior position doing damage to someone else's life and career out of what is clearly ignorance of the rules of natural justice and then it is impossible to call that person to account because the structures do not allow it," she added.

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