Ready answer for complaints

March 27, 1998

UNIVERSITIES and colleges could turn to arbitration to deal with student complaints, according to a report to be published soon by vice-chancellors.

Institutions with no visitor or other independent system for reviewing their complaints procedures would fall safely within the law if they introduced arbitration agreements governed by the rules of the Arbitration Act 1996, it says.

Legal advisers Eversheds told the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' working party on student complaints and appeals that "there appear to be no major obstacles to arbitration as a method of independent review".

A paper from Eversheds included in the working party's final draft report, which deals with Nolan committee recommendations on student complaints, says that as long as the rules are kept simple and clear, arbitration could provide "a quicker, more efficient and less expensive system of dispute resolution than litigation in the High Court or county court".

This conclusion has led the CVCP to suggest that an arbitration system should be seriously considered as one of six options for independent review.

The system, which could be administered by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, would not be deemed legally "unfair" as long as students were given the option of pursuing claims for compensation of up to Pounds 3,000 through the small claims court.

There is no reason why arbitration could not be confined to matters of procedure, rather than involving academic judgement, Eversheds says.

Students, who would not be entitled to legal aid to cover the costs of arbitration, could be provided with financial support from a central fund or student welfare departments. Alternatively, universities could work through a scheme with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators to cover costs.

* Institutions must have clear procedures for dealing with complaints and should apply them rigorously and accurately, never changing the rules to suit the circumstances, warns a new guide, Higher Education and the Law, edited by David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford, and David Warner, acting principal of Swansea Institute.

Details, page 9; leader, page 15

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