Staff/student dispute resolution is ‘inadequate’, says study

Despite progress, fragmented arrangements leave institutions vulnerable to reputational damage. Melanie Newman reports

August 11, 2009

Universities’ arrangements for dealing with disputes involving staff and students are inadequate, according to a new report from the Improving Dispute Resolution taskforce.

The group, which is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, states that forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), in particular mediation, are being used much more widely in relation to staff than students.

“In most institutions, it appears that the human resources or personnel section is taking the lead in the introduction of mediation, and student provision is lagging behind,” the report, Disputes in your Institution: Lessons to be Learned, says. “This also means that there is likely to be inadequate provision for the use of ADR where a dispute involves both staff and students.”

The study also states that ADR arrangements tend to be fragmented, which means that disputes could take longer to resolve, making reputational damage more likely.

The project’s leader, Gillian Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, said: “We are pleased to note how many universities are beginning to see the benefits of using ADR. There is now an encouragingly long list of in-house mediation services and it is growing all the time.”

But too many universities were still exposed, she added: “Disputes cost money, use up administrative time and can leave a huge dent in a university’s reputation.

“A student from the US who goes home with a sense of injustice can spread the word. The same student who has had a chance to talk things through… in mediation and work out a creative resolution with the university can go away telling a quite different story.”

Last summer, the taskforce, which is funded by Hefce’s Leadership, Governance and Management Fund, flagged up ways of addressing “causes for concern” or “systemic” problems in institutions.

Universities need a “radical change of mindset” to deal with such issues, Professor Evans said, echoing concerns raised in the recent Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee report, Students and Universities, which says that whistleblowers are inadequately protected.

Professor Evans said: “Management has to learn not to see such things as attacks but as potentially useful suggestions.”

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