Visitors belong to a bygone age

January 21, 2000

I attended a seminar on the visitor ("Outdated visitors need a rational replacement", THES, January 14) held by UCELNET late last year as one of two student representatives. Present at the seminar were several visitors and their representatives - bishops, the secretary to the Privy Council, the vicar-general to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Picard QC ... an impressive assembly.

Observing the proceedings, two things struck me: the desire among ex-officio visitors to do the job with integrity and as fairly and swiftly as possible; and the absolute impossibility of this happening, given the lack of time, resources or any considered and accepted notion of what constitutes "fairness".

They were serious about their responsibilities, for they all seemed like jolly nice chaps (and chapesses) who represented the "best" of the system, while being blissfully unaware of its flaws. Goodwill aplenty, but a visitorial system cannot live on goodwill alone.

The concern about the burden of ex-officio responsibilities was evident and had spurred many to attend. They realised they are often ill-qualified to meet these responsibilities, given increases in case load and new legislation.

The group was mostly composed of upstanding, white, male, establishment figures, but they seemed very distant from the world of education and the students with whom they were dealing.

Looking back at my notes the phrases used to describe the system were:

"sympathy for the needs of the university", "best interests of the institution", "intentions of the founder", "wellbeing of the academic community", "responsibility to the founder" and (lest we forget) it was pointed out that "institutions have rights and interests too".

Goodwill aplenty in an old-school kind of way but the visitors had little to say about accountability, independence of judgement, procedural regulations, impartiality and even less about students (although they did sit through some interesting presentations on possible alternative solutions before swiftly rejecting them).

I was also struck by the heraldic imagery of nostalgic and noble knight protectors, like the hapless Redcrosse - protectors of the honour of institutions, defenders of the faith in the infallible Establishment. But I am not sure The Faerie Queene is a substitute for well-regulated procedures. Perhaps the scenario demonstrated here is why so many of us feel unable to extend "goodwill" towards a system that characterises its role as a heroic battle to defend the besieged institutions against the students who wish to bring them harm?

Lucy Reed President Birkbeck College student union University of London Communications officer, National Postgraduate Committee.

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