Specialist mediation aims to forestall court action

October 17, 2003

A specialist mediation service for university disputes to be launched next week intends to prise open the "unaccountable" world of academic decision-making, writes Phil Baty.

The courts are in essence barred from examining any question of academic judgement, such as admissions and promotions decisions or students'

examination marks, as no judge could be expected to usurp the specialist knowledge of an academic. The higher education commissioner who begins work next year has already made clear that such matters are off-limits, with the focus on procedural matters only.

The new Higher Education Mediation Service at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (Oxcheps) intends to provide a catalogue of approved and trained specialist mediators willing to help solve academic disputes between staff or students and their universities.

"One of the areas where students most often complain and the courts can do least to help them is where a question of academic judgement is mixed up with muddle over the following of procedures," said Gill Evans, a history professor and barrister, and founding member of the service.

"Within the 'safe place' that a mediation makes available this can be tackled and we have high hopes that universities may be able to see their way to reconsidering the range of solutions they offer a student."

David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford, and director of Oxcheps, expects the service to be embraced by universities.

He said: "Lord Wolf's 1996 reforms to the justice system said that there should now be an expectation that mediation has taken place before anyone ends up in court. There could be substantial cost implications to parties who have not shown a willingness to seek mediation."

The paper insists the service will complement, not conflict with, the new office of the independent adjudicator, which will act as the new national student ombudsman from January.

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