Visitors' days numbered

June 16, 2000

The visitor system for dealing with student complaints is "doomed", higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said this week.

Her comments spell the end of an archaic system - dominated by royalty, the aristocracy and the church - in which one Oxbridge college is still using Latin to explain its procedures.

Baroness Blackstone welcomed the idea of an ombudsman and asked universities and colleges to look at the reform of the student complaints system by the end of the year. "It is time for a modern, open, transparent system," she said.

An ombudsman was previously thought to be too expensive. Baroness Blackstone said funding for the position could by top-sliced from university grants and that it would "not be a huge amount".

Speaking at a Quality Assurance Agency conference in London on the agency's code of practice on student complaints and academic appeals, Baroness Blackstone said that legislation to abolish the visitor system "could be attached to some other bill".

She warned that universities could fall foul of the Human Rights Act, which comes into force in October.

Alex Galloway, clerk of the Privy Council, which acts for the Queen as visitor to 17 universities, described the current arrangements as "profoundly unsatisfactory", providing "amateur justice".

He said the council had improved and published its procedures, setting time limits. "We were hoist by our own petard as we received a flood of complaints that we could not act on in time."

Graham Zellick, vice-chancellor of the University of London, was billed to speak to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' consultation paper on the establishment of independent panels to adjudicate on complaints. But he immediately said he was speaking in a personal capacity and called for having an ombudsman in the short term - not the long term as proposed in the paper.

"I cannot see the point of going to all that trouble of establishing panels, when we should have an ombudsman," he said.

Universities have been asked to send in views to the CVCP paper by the summer so a response can be issued in September.

Dennis Farrington, deputy secretary of the University of Stirling and a legal consultant, gave the interim results of his report on the visitor system.

Chartered institutions were asked who their visitors were, what powers they had, how possible appellants were to know of these powers and whether there were any procedural guidelines.

More than half of those who responded were Oxbridge colleges, one of which still uses Latin in its procedures. Half of respondents had a mechanism for bringing the complaints procedures to the attention of students.

Visitors included: the Queen (acting either through the Privy Council or the Lord Chancellor); the Queen Mother; the Duke of Edinburgh; the Duke of Kent; the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Durham, Ely, Exeter, Lincoln, Oxford, St David's and Winchester; the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery; Lord De L'Isle of Penshurst; Lord Jenkins of Hillhead; the Master of the Rolls; Sir Anthony Evans QC; Lord Howe QC; Lord Griffiths of Govilon QC; Baroness Warnock of Weeke.

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