Students to get fairer hearing

April 2, 1999

Education secretary David Blunkett has ordered an urgent review of universities' progress in replacing "unfair" student complaints procedures.

Officials at the Department for Education and Employment have demanded "progress reports" on individual institutions amid fears that some are dragging their feet over promised reforms.

Mr Blunkett has written to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Standing Conference of Principals warning that his department will conduct a review of arrangements for handling complaints in the summer.

The Dearing report said in 1997 that institutions must establish student complaints arrangements that "reflect the principles of natural justice" and are "transparent and timely". He gave a deadline of two years.

Ministers ruled out calls for an external complaints ombudsman, but said universities should adopt Dearing's proposals.

But there are concerns that institutions have been slow to adapt. Dennis Farrington, head of the Universities and Colleges Education Law Network, told members last month: "The system appears to be floundering."

Dr Farrington told delegates at the Association of University Administrators conference in Manchester this week that urgent steps were needed to replace the "outdated and unfair" visitorial system used by old universities to deal with complaints.

He said the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights and which takes effect next year, would force change. So would the Freedom of Information Bill and the Data Protection Act. "I have no faith in the visitorial system at all. It is unfair and will fall foul of the legislation," Dr Farrington said.

The Quality Assurance Agency is about to produce a new code of practice on complaints, against which institutions will be judged in assessments. Dr Farrington, who is a member of the working group drafting the code, said there were serious doubts about the CVCP's preference for a new system of arbitration, which could prove expensive and legally unsound. Instead, independent standing panels should be created to handle complaints, he said. They could be made up of retired senior university administrators, professors of law and, possibly, former vice-chancellors.

A report last year by the National Postgraduate Committee claimed that 81 per cent of complaints procedures were ineffective and 70 per cent of institutions were not coping. The report highlighted bad practice at Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, Oxford and University College London. It found that new universities had embraced good practice.

The NPC report found that 74 per cent of universities reported an increase in complaints. It is widely expected that the introduction of tuition fees will mean more.

The CVCP said that it has assured ministers that it has surveyed all universities, which have confirmed that they have student complaints procedures in place.

"Those procedures and their appeals mechanisms will be reviewed by the CVCP after Easter," said a spokeswoman.

It will report to ministers on individual institutions in June.

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