The Quality Assurance Agency is "more lap-dog than watchdog" when it comes to policing student grievances, student leaders said this week.
The National Postgraduate Committee said that the QAA would fail to fulfil Lord Dearing's recommendation that it develop a "fair and robust" system of student complaints over educational standards.
Lobbying from universities, in the name of institutional autonomy, to minimise the agency's role in student complaints had ensured that the QAA will be a "lame duck", NPC project officer Don Staniford said.
In response to Dearing, the government has indicated that complaints should be an internal matter for institutions, despite student demands for an independent ombudsman.
"Dearing gives the QAA a clear role in complaints," Mr Staniford said. "But it is in no man's land, sitting on the fence, which is a very painful position to be in. They are more lap-dogs than watchdogs." The NPC has campaigned for a strengthening of the QAA's role and remit.
This week, the QAA acknowledged that its hands were tied. "We are in an untenable position," said Mike Laughame, agency assistant director of development. "We are in receipt of complaints every day but we have no remit to intervene or even to enter into discussions. It is a very difficult situation."
But Dr Laughame promised firm action wherever the agency's remit allowed. He was expected to detail the plans of a new QAA working group on complaints at a conference organised by the Universities and Colleges Education Law Network today.
The QAA does have power to police institutions' procedures and their adherence to a series of agency-determined codes of practice. "Our whole future is in terms of institutional reviews," Dr Laughame said. "We will audit institutions against a whole range of sub-codes within our code of practice."
The working group has just begun drawing up a code on student complaints, appeals and grievances. A final draft of the code to the agency board will be submitted in summer 1999 and published shortly afterwards. Institutions will have two years to implement the code.
Institutions found not to be adhering to the code will be subject to tough action. Dr Laughame indicated that the QAA is developing a more informal role. "There are situations where the agency could not afford to let something from students sit on its desk without trying to follow it up," he said.