Visitor is out in QAA draft code

July 23, 1999

The Quality Assurance Agency blueprint for complaints and standards is under fire

Objections from universities have forced the Quality Assurance Agency back to the drawing board with its code of practice on student complaints and appeals.

University representatives helping to draft the code have rejected plans for independent and external review of student complaints, believing the system will be unworkable.

Institutions argue that the QAA's plans are legally unenforceable for old institutions with a visitor -- already legally entrenched as the independent arbitrator of disputes. The plans would place an unnecessary burden on new universities that can call on lay members of senate or council for independent dispute resolution.

According to a draft obtained by The THES, the QAA intends to set 18 "precepts", for the proper handling of complaints and appeals, against which institutions would be judged by QAA auditors, ultimately as a condition of funding.

The precepts, with additional best practice guidance, would set guidelines on students' access to information; give a clear steer on appropriate internal complaints mechanisms; ensure that remedies are properly defined and administered; and offer a framework for monitoring and reviewing procedures.

But the section in the code detailing requirements for independent and external review of complaints, as called for by Lord Dearing in his review of higher education in 1997, has revealed intractable differences.

QAA documents say: "Major objections were raised (to the section of the code on independent review) by respondents in institutions with a visitor. We recommend revisiting the section."

The QAA plans to set three "precepts" for external review. Institutions should have arrangements for independent review in addition to students' rights to go to court; external review should be carried out as quickly and as cheaply as is reasonable; and the review should be conducted by a truly independent person, who would have to give an adequate explanation of his or her decision.

But the additional guidance in the code given by the QAA would have precluded a university visitor from the role.

Janusz Karczewski-Slowikow-ski, academic registrar at Manchester Metropolitan University, who is on the working group drafting the code, wrote to the QAA: "I wonder how appropriate it is to exclude the university visitor from external review. This seems to be jumping the gun somewhat and, I suggest, is legally unenforceable."

Jon Baldwin, registrar at Wolverhampton University, told the QAA that the plans for independent external review were "unworkable and will simply prejudice the goodwill you are endeavouring to generate."

The QAA is already preparing to water down its original plans in an attempt at a "half-way house" between students who demand a strong external element to complaints, and the universities.

The original draft code would have ensured that any independent review of a university's handling of complaints should be conducted by a "wholly independent" person, but the new draft limits this precept to a "sufficiently" independent person. The code on students' access to information has also been changed. Under the original draft, students were to be given "full access" to "all relevant documentation". This has become "appropriate access" to "relevant documentation".

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