The need for an academic ombudsman

September 4, 1998

The settling of academic disputes by universities alone has always been a difficult process. John Griffith argues the case for an independent watchdog

Academic institutions are notorious for their internal disputes. Sometimes the arguments are about serious matters. It is not universally true, as Henry Kissinger reportedly said, that the reason academics quarrel so bitterly is because so little is at stake. In recent years all sorts of abuses of power have come to light in universities - bullying, corruption, nepotism, cheating, gagging clauses, etc.

Academic disputes fall into two categories. Either they originate in complaints about conditions of employment, in the broadest sense, or in disciplinary charges brought against individuals which may result in dismissal. The structure of universities does not easily lend itself to the resolution of disputes of either kind. The upholding of a complaint or the dismissal of a charge almost invariably carries with it express or implied criticism of senior academics or senior officials and so is difficult to establish before a tribunal composed largely of such persons.

What academics now need, in my view, is a statutory body with investigatory powers. It might be possible to enlarge the jurisdiction of the Local Government Commission to include universities. Its minimum function would be to ensure that university investigation of particular complaints was properly conducted but it should be empowered in appropriate cases to itself undertake a full enquiry into the substantial issues.

Alternatively, regional commissioners could be made available to operate under the Department of Education and Employment - ombudsmen to whom academics with grievances could take their complaints with the assurance that they would be fully and fairly investigated.

The current unsatisfactory climate within universities has been building up for some time. In the late 1960s, there occurred a series of incidents involving individuals at Hornsey and Guildford Colleges of Art, at Birmingham University and, most seriously, at the London School of Economics. These and other incidents suggested an increasingly overt threat to academics' freedom of speech, teaching and research. They also marked attempts on the part of the authorities both inside universities and in government to deal with a developing crisis triggered by student protest questioning the character, purpose and management of higher education.

Some of us who were alarmed by the attitude of university authorities to staff and students worked with others in setting up the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy in 1970. Over the next decade, the Council campaigned and took up a large number of cases throughout the country.

And so to the Education Reform Act 1988 and the ending of tenure. Universities were to be "first and foremost corporate enterprises to which subsidiary units and individual academics were responsible and accountable". The only advance was that, under great pressure, the government agreed to a section in the Act to ensure that academic staff had freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions "without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges".

But, as Ian Gilmour wrote in 1992, "the Thatcherite espousal of market forces was accompanied in the universities by increased state control, thereby further jeopardising the worldwide reputation of British universities.

The Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy gradually ceased to operate during the 1980s. Academics were unwilling to court disfavour when their employers were being required to draw up lists of those whose services might be dispensed with.

By far the most important document of recent times in the context is the Report of the Visitorial Inquiry by Sir Michael Davies on 26 May 1993 into the conduct of the Centre for the Study of Philosophy and Healthcare at the University College of Swansea. Internal disciplinary proceedings had rejected the serious criticisms of the centre by Michael Cohen and Colwyn Williamson, the former being severely reprimanded and the latter recommended for dismissal. The report upheld the criticisms, quashed the convictions, and reinstated Anne Maclean who had been forced into retirement. The case was unique but its subsequent influence has been considerable. There had been, said Sir Michael, "no knowledge or record in the Privy Council office of anything like it in the past". The report amply demonstrated the superiority of the inquisitorial approach.

Sir Michael tellingly referred to a statement made by the principal of the University College, noted in The THES: "If this had happened in a company and I had been managing director, those people (the critics) would have been up the road the moment they kicked up the fuss they did. They would have taken us to an industrial tribunal, but they would have been off the payroll."

The point is, said Sir Michael, that neither the University of Wales nor the University College of Swansea is "a company" in the profitmaking or any other sense.

Because disputes vary so greatly in scope and intensity, no simple reforms are applicable. Complaints will continue to be channelled through grievance procedures within each institution. But some mechanism is needed for their supervision. Disciplinary proceedings which may result in dismissal are reviewable by industrial tribunals but reinstatement is unlikely to follow a favourable verdict.

After the Swansea case, Colwyn Williamson and others set up the Council for Academic Freedom and Standards. The emphasis on standards is a sign of the times. Their investigations have uncovered gagging clauses, plagiarism, misuse of public funds, cheating and corruption, nepotism, authoritarianism, inadequate or ignored procedures at hearings, the targeting of union officials, bullying and much else. Today they represent the best hope for those who find themselves in dispute with university or college management. But perhaps it is time for an alternative.

John Griffith is emeritus professor of public law at the University of London.

* Do academics need an ombudsman, independent of universities, to investigate their grievances and complaints? Email The THES on A selection of responses will be printed in next week's THES.

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