Most universities want to keep their visitors despite concerns that the ancient complaints system will fall foul of new human rights legislation.
A survey by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has found that 65 per cent of old universities who have a visitor system want to keep it, compared with just 35 per cent who would be happy to see the end of the system in which peers, bishops and even royalty are the final arbiters of staff and students' grievances.
But the survey, presented at the CVCP's recent residential meeting, reveals that the tide is turning in favour of a single ombudsman to oversee the whole of higher education.
Of those universities with visitors, a slim majority (54 per cent) either actively favour an ombudsman system to replace the visitor, or see one as inevitable. And of the sector as a whole, including new universities and higher education colleges that do not have visitors, enthusiasm for a universal ombudsman-style system was high.
Of the 74 institutions that responded to the CVCP's survey, 67.5 per cent favoured either an ombudsman system or a system of independent panels to resolve complaints.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone wants to see firm plans for a new system of dealing with student and staff complaints by the end of this year. It is understood that ministers are unhappy with such variable systems for students' complaints in an era of tuition fees.
Experts also believe that the Europe-led Human Rights Act, which comes into force in Britain next month and demands "a fair and public hearing" for the determination of people's civil rights, will expose the shortcomings of the visitor system.
The idea of an ombudsman, only tentatively mooted in the CVCP consultation paper, has gathered momentum. The CVCP will now draw up firmer plans for a new system.