QAA code curtails student rights

August 6, 1999

The Quality Assurance Agency's attempt to control students' access to information through its code of practice on students' complaints and appeals ("Visitor is out in QAA draft code", THES, July 23), mirrors the government's attempts to dilute its previous commitment to an absolute right of access to information, to a practice of partial and discretionary disclosure. By sleight of hand, freedom of information to all as of right is transformed into the civil servant's or university administrator's freedom to retain information.

In the QAA draft code, "full access" to "all relevant documentation" has become "appropriate access" to "relevant documentation". Under the proposed revision, universities will retain discretion to judge the appropriateness of disclosure and the relevance of the documentation it may choose to disclose to the student.

How is the student to judge whether the university has acted reasonably in making these judgements, untainted by its interest in defending its position in relation to a complaint?

My experience of pursuing a complaint at Bath University through the grievance procedure, and subsequently to the visitor, demonstrates that student access to information held by the university is a precious right that needs to be defended if a culture of openness and objectivity is to prevail.

Bath statutes define the circumstances under which it can classify matters relating to decisions on individual students as "reserved area business" that "shall not at any time be made available to a student". The statute protects the university from the inappropriate disclosure of matters that can be legitimately defined as academic decision-making and allows the student to argue that documentation held by the university that does not fall into the "reserved area business" definition should be disclosed to the student preparing for a complaint or grievance.

The successful deployment of this argument in my case forced the university to disclose "confidential" and "strictly confidential" documents it held outside the "reserved area business" category. While there is a growing awareness that the government's Freedom of Information Act is likely to prove more restrictive than John Major's administration's code of practice on openness, I doubt whether the QAA or academia in general appreciate that the QAA code threatens to tilt the balance towards increased secrecy and diminished student rights.

Neil McDougall, Corsham, Wiltshire

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