THE Quality Assurance Agency may take on the role of independent ombudsman for student complaints.
At the moment the QAA has no powers to intervene in individual disputes between students and institutions, and has only a limited remit to oversee the effectiveness of institutions' internal complaints procedures. It can intervene only when an institution faces very large numbers of complaints.
But the agency, which is already drawing up a code of practice for complaints to be published in September, is frustrated by its toothlessness, inside sources say. It would be ready to assume a more powerful role, as recommended by Lord Dearing's higher education inquiry, if there was the political will.
One QAA insider said that it was clear that institutions were not dealing with student complaints as well as they should, and that the QAA is discussing its role as an ombudsman.
QAA director of policy reviews Peter Milton said that the issue of student complaints had been at "the top of the agenda from the word go" and that there had been "a fair bit of soul-searching" over the issue.
QAA chief executive John Randall did not deny that the agency was unhappy with its limited role but he did insist that the QAA had "not yet" sought an adjudicating role in relation to individual student complaints.
Lord Dearing's report said that the QAA should develop "a fair and robust system for complaints". The government has indicated that complaints should be left to individual institutions.
Dearing's recommendation has been resisted by vice-chancellors already concerned about the QAA's infringement of institutional autonomy in its plans for setting and policing minimum threshold standards.
But the QAA is involved in talks with the National Postgraduate Committee, which has been campaigning for an ombudsman. Don Staniford, a project officer for the NPC who has been researching complaints procedures and has met QAA representatives, said: "It would be great if the agency's role was enhanced. I think the QAA wants that too, but it is not in a position to say so. The vice-chancellors will not like it and its hands are tied."
It is also understood that the QAA is to meet next month with the National Union of Students, which has also lobbied hard for an ombudsman. The two bodies may launch a joint, high-profile campaign.
But Mr Randall was quick to point out the barriers to a comprehensive overseeing role. "It is all very well to say, 'wouldn't it be a great idea'," he said, "but you cannot consider it in isolation." Creating an ombudsman, he said, would probably require primary legislation and would "oust current jurisdiction" enshrined in universities' charters. It would also require additional resources. "There is a need to think very carefully," he said.