Student leaders have warned that vice-chancellors' plans to set up an ombudsman for student complaints could be "fudged", writes Phil Baty.
The National Union of Students said this week that the proposed ombudsman - known as the "independent reviewer" - could be left impotent and toothless, following a consultation paper from Universities UK.
Brooks Duke, NUS vice-president, said: "There should be no opt out. This is a paper that can be so easily fudged."
The UUK paper says that universities "would have the choice to participate or not in the arrangement".
The NUS said the document could allow the visitor system to survive. Students claimed that the visitor, often a bishop or royalty, appointed to handle staff and student complaints in old universities, might be in breach of human-rights laws guaranteeing a right to a fair trial.
Ministers originally told vice-chancellors to come up with an ombudsman plan because the visitor system was "doomed". But the students pointed out that the UUK paper suggested a "compromise" on its future.
The paper says that if the ombudsman's decisions are to be binding, "then legislation would be required to have the visitor system replaced". It says: "A possible compromise might be that the visitors would indicate that... they would accept that independent reviewer's advice."
It is feared that a compromise option would muddy the legislative position further as the visitor has exclusive jurisdiction that rules out court action. Mr Duke said that the visitor system should be abolished outright.
He said the UUK paper also left scope for the ombudsman's advice to be ignored by asking universities if they would prefer the reviewer's decisions to be advisory rather than binding.
And it set limits to the scope of the reviewer's recommendations saying:
"The question arises as to whether the independent reviewer should rule or recommend on a suitable remedy."
The NUS rejected suggestions in the paper that institutions should meet some or all of the costs of the system and said the government should pay for it to ensure its independence.
The UUK paper said funding from government would create an "imposed solution and it could be argued that this would diminish commitment to an initiative that should be led by the sector".
The NUS said it would make a formal submission to UUK and would approach ministers about its concerns.