V-cs are reluctant to evict visitors

April 6, 2001

Vice-chancellors and principals are expected to duck reform of the visitor system in their consultation document on an ombudsman scheme to be published next week.

Universities UK is examining proposals for a voluntary scheme in which universities with a visitor would be asked to delegate dispute resolution to an ombudsman.

This will anger students, who have been campaigning for the abolition of the visitor system, in which a senior bishop or aristocrat adjudicates staff and student complaints in the old universities. Abolition of the visitor would require legislation and the alteration of university charters and statutes.

Greg Wade, policy adviser at the Standing Conference of Principals, who has been helping draft the plans with UUK, said: "We do hope to avoid as much legislation as possible, or any at all."

A recent UUK survey found that although there was a growing willingness to accept an ombudsman, a majority of old universities reported they were happy to keep the old system.

Last year, higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said the visitor system was discredited and doomed. She called on the sector to draw up a "modern, open, transparent system".

A key issue in the consultation is the inclusion of staff complaints in the scheme. Mr Wade said: "Not everyone is happy with the prospect of including staff because it is difficult to see a clear idea of what sort of complaints we're talking about."

Staff are protected by employment laws but it is unclear how far an ombudsman might intervene in issues such as academic freedom or internal grievance complaints.

The working group expects that the ombudsman would become an approved scheme of the British Institute of Ombudsman Associations, conforming to its code of practice to guarantee independence and fairness.

UUK also hopes that an ombudsman would attract direct funding from the Department for Education and Employment.

"There is an issue of independence," Mr Wade said. "We are looking at institutional subscriptions, but it would be preferable if a majority of funding came from an independent source. If it were funded by the sector, it would raise questions about independence."

The visitor system deals with an average of one complaint per institution per year but it is thought that some complaints are not heard because students are unaware of the system.

Code to stamp out bias in admissions

Prejudice in university access and admissions should be stamped out under new rules.

Training for admissions tutors and recognition of the different ways applicants can demonstrate their abilities are included in a draft code of practice published this week by the Quality Assurance Agency.

It follows allegations of bias after Oxford University's rejection of comprehensive school student Laura Spence.

The code helps "institutions to assure themselves and others that the policies and procedures they use to attract, recruit and admit students are clear, fair, explicit and consistently applied," the QAA says.

The code focuses on fairness, especially between students from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Institutions have to discriminate between applications, but as an exercise of judgement is required "it is important that this is underpinned by reference to transparent and justifiable criteria". For example, institutions should be clear and open about reliance on examination results.

The rules say: institutions must ensure that their promotional materials are accurate and "accessible"; decisions should be made by reference to specified criteria; there should be admissions complaints systems; prospective students must be informed of changes made to a programme after a place is offered and before registration; and regular procedural reviews should be conducted.

The code is open for consultation until May 25.

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