Union call for strong watchdog

August 27, 2004

Academics could soon get a new ombudsman to deal with their complaints against university managers and governors, as unions begin fresh talks with vice- chancellors over plans to replace the defunct quasijudicial disputes arbitrator, the visitor.

The Government has called on the Association of University Teachers and the vice-chancellors' umbrella body, Universities UK, to thrash out plans for a new system to replace the ancient Visitor - a post in the Chartered universities that has adjudicated on staff and student disputes for the past 500 years.

The AUT said this week that it would kick off talks with an uncompromising demand for nothing less than a full independent adjudicator for staff grievances - akin to the new Office of the Independent Adjudicator for student complaints.

"We have made clear since our submission to the Government's White Paper on higher education that we want a truly independent adjudicator to replace the Visitor," said Terry McKnight, president of the AUT.

The Government confirmed in its 2003 White Paper that the ad-hoc Visitor system was inappropriate for handling student complaints in the modern, tuition fee-paying era.

It promised to establish the students' OIA and gave the office statutory powers by abolishing the legal jurisdiction of the visitor over student complaints.

But in an 11th-hour concession to peers in the House of Lords in June, the Government agreed to remove the visitor's jurisdiction over staff grievances - academic or not - in universities.

It ruled out extending the OIA to cover staff, and promised to "facilitate" talks between the AUT and UUK to set out plans for a new adjudication system for staff.

The visitor can rule on all aspects of a university's use of its procedures and internal statutes and ordinances, such as staff disciplinary or redundancyprocedures, whether they relate directly to employment rights or not.

In recent rulings, visitors have declared universities' redundancy procedures "illegal" under internal rules, and have ordered the re-staging of grievance hearings and staff promotion exercises.

But talks over a replacement system have got off to a shaky start.

In a statement this week, UUK said: "UUK has met with the AUT and will be conducting a review of the UUK guidance that was issued to institutions in relation to Pubic Interest Disclosure complaints."

The UUK declined to comment further.

The AUT reacted angrily to the statement. Mr McKnight dismissed it as a "minimalist" approach, warning that the narrow focus on whistleblowing guidelines in no way covered the important protection for staff offered by the visitor who will have to be replaced.

Mr McKnight said: "UUK's reaction does not answer what Parliament was looking for, never mind what we're after as a union. This is much narrower than we'd have expected. We want a replacement for the visitor that will be much more extensive than what the UUK appears to be working towards."

Gillian Evans, the Cambridge history professor who co-founded the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies arbitration service, said: "If students are to be given an independent adjudicator, staff must have one too, or dispute after dispute is going to end in an employment tribunal.

That would be against public policy, surely. And a great waste of public money."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said that the abolition of the visitor would not come into effect until early 2005.

She said: "The department has agreed to facilitate such discussions, but the primary responsibility for developing any additional arrangements for redress outside the tribunals and courts lies with the sector.

"UUK and the AUT are currently taking this forward and will be consulting institutions on their proposals from September."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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