Outdated visitors need a rational replacement

January 14, 2000

Accountable university management; a better student experience; even the creation of a new and more rational monarchy. All these ends would be served by killing off the role of the visitor in university governance and replacing it with something more rational. So it is a shame that this medieval relic looks set to live on into the new millennium.

As we report this week (page 6), the Lord Chancellor's Department, which runs the visitor system on behalf of Her Majesty, has already voted with its feet by abandoning the responsibility completely for four months of 1997 and devoting only minimal resources to it at other times. The LCD is small by the standards of government departments and faces voracious demands to support ambitious ministers and new legislation. Civil servants hate relinquishing power. But the LCD might make an exception if offered the chance of unloading its caseload of visitor duties.

Similar relief might greet the news that other, even less expected, visitors were to relinquish the role. Nobody doubts the Archbishop of Canterbury's qualities, but is he really the person to sort out problem cases as visitor of Wye College?

And nobody knows better than the Lord Chancellor's Department that the monarch's role as referee of student complaints is about to become even more complex with the implementation of the 1998 Human Rights Act (page 8). Universities get much of their money for teaching from public funds, which means that even the LCD's civil servants may not pass the test of impartiality the act requires. And on the basis of recent experience, the requirement for justice to be timely has little hope of being met.

Neither should the post-1992 universities assume that

everything is perfect in their systems for dealing with dissatisfied students. Finding people who are willing to devote substantial amounts of time to knotty student grievance cases and who are genuinely independent of both sides will be a problem for all types of institution.

In Scotland, universities as old as any south of the border have never felt the need for a visitor system. Instead, the university court is the topmost level of appeal. This might seem attractive, but raises issues of independence, since the court is part of the university. Devolution means that the Scottish system does not have to match the English one precisely, but it will have to meet European Union standards of fairness.

Perhaps in the longer term the solution will be the emergence of a group of semi-professional grievance arbiters

analogous to the Boundary Commissioners - who derive their power from the Home Secretary but are legally independent of him - or even the General Medical Council. They would be able to apply consistent standards even if differing systems continued to exist. To avoid having too many retired professors with their own agendas dominating the system, an effort might be made to recruit former senior industrialists and politicians with a name for thoughtfulness. Lord Howe, now visitor of the School of Oriental and African Studies, could be a possible candidate.

But as any quality control expert would confirm, last-resort machinery such as the visitor system and its possible replacement should be used as rarely as possible. It is no substitute for getting things right to start with.

The imminent code of practice on student complaints is nearly a year behind schedule (page 4). In its final version it must provide open, fair and independent systems. But it should also encourage arguments to be settled informally and at a lower rather than a higher level. Whenever possible, the aim should be to allow students to complete

courses rather than spend years embroiled in quasi-legal actions.

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