The level-headed superhero

Increasingly bitter and complex campus disputes need sane, tactful ombudsmen to solve them, says G.R. Evans

June 26, 2008

Disputes in universities do not stay in boxes. Student accuses an academic of not answering e-mail requests for help with coursework. Student sends mass e-mails to entire department making colourful accusations. Academic off sick with stress. Rest of department demands disciplinary action against student. Head of department accuses student of harassment and breach of university computing service rules. Student does not submit coursework on time and fails examination. Student says this is nothing to do with working every evening in lap-dancing club and not attending morning lectures for a whole term. Student claims sex discrimination. Everybody consults lawyers. University pays for legal representation for head of department. Student says this is unfair. Academic on gardening leave wants free legal representation too. Writs fly.

And it is getting worse. In bringing about radical change in the way the sector is expected to operate, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the funding councils are introducing extra players in what was already more than a game of two halves, always running into extra time and with players who take no notice of the referee's whistle. Now we have employer engagement; collaborative arrangements with further education colleges and international partner institutions; transnational campuses; commercial sponsorship of research; and knowledge transfer. And then there is the anxious parent - remember the academic who responded to a worried mother by giving details of her son's course arrangements without asking his permission (Times Higher Education, 15 May, page 9) and created a furore?

It took the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Dearing report and years of pressure to bring us the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. But the same Higher Education Act of 2004 that produced this took away remedies for employees by ending the jurisdiction of University Visitors, and gave them no independent adjudicator of their own. There is nowhere to go with many increasingly complex disputes except the courts.

Would a campus ombudsman do the trick - swoop in like Superwoman or Batman, satisfy inveterate complainers, empty administrative in-boxes of grumbles, and convince academics that an international reputation in rocket science does not relieve them of the need to master the rules of natural justice in dealing with lab technicians?

Ombudsmen are fixtures in universities in other countries. In Canada there have been regular conferences for them since the late 1970s. They have them in Australia and in the US, too. In April the Office of the Independent Adjudicator held a conference with the European Network for Ombudsmen in Higher Education.

You want one too? But what would your ombudsman do? A quick Google will find you a goodly crop with the ombudstitle, but they are not all doing the same ombudsjob. Some of them are triage nurses in the casualty unit of university disputes, there at the start, to "provide confidential, informal assistance to individuals and groups, and help identify problems and facilitate the fair resolution of problems that arise in their organizations", as the State University of New York puts it. Others are not allowed to act until all internal avenues are exhausted. Some are everyone's cosy ombudsfriend, and some are severe and remote ombudsenforcers.

You need an officer who can work with the whole community; tactful, respected, quietly inculcating habits of reasonableness. Someone who will understand all sorts of ground rules, from the institution's legal obligations to its procedures; someone who knows how academic politics work and the things that matter to students; someone who will be trusted enough to be approached at an early stage of a conflict and who can make sensible suggestions about the quickest way to a resolution. They might propose mediation here, an apology there, referral to a committee that can revise procedures; they will use complaints or grievance procedures if there is no quicker way, but make sure they are followed properly.

So here's a challenge. Help us help you design the brief.

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