Role for outsider in giving students a fair hearing

July 23, 1999

Students are paying customers now and, as predicted, they are becoming more exacting. In this they are being egged on by the National Union of Students and, more indirectly, by the government and the Quality Assurance Agency.

The NUS must hope that this issue will help re-establish its credibility when campus scepticism is growing as to whether the union represents value for money. Students bringing complaints may want to check what support NUS will offer.

For the government, championing students has populist attractions. Ministers may not be able to do much about hardship or overcrowding, but castigating institutions for not dealing better with complaints is free.

The QAA is caught between a rock and a hard place. Keen to push the government's agenda by securing uniform arrangements, it has once again run up against the autonomy of its masters, the institutions. Universities with visitors are apparently unwilling to give up a remote, slow and secretive arrangement devised by the medieval church to check heresy, despite the evident drawbacks (Dennis Farrington, letters, page 15).

There is no good reason why grievance procedures should be uniform and for the QAA to be involved. Institutions differ and students will rarely be bringing complaints in more than one place. What is necessary is that all institutions have such procedures; that these are clearly known; that, as the Dearing report recommended, complaints are dealt with "fairly, transparently and in a timely way". That some institutions had no procedures when Dearing reported was a scandal. If any still have not it is outrageous and should be sorted. If some want to have a visitor why not modernise the role? The visitor is dead. Long live the independent outsider.

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