Visitors survive disputes reform

July 6, 2001

The long-awaited ombudsman system for universities will not include staff and will allow the visitor to survive.

Detailed proposals will be published by Universities UK for consultation next week - seven months after the deadline set by ministers. They are likely to infuriate lecturers and students alike for making too many compromises.

Most controversial is the visitor system. The visitor, usually a royal or senior bishop appointed for now irrelevant historical reasons to adjudicate on staff and student complaints, is thought to be in breach of human rights legislation concerning a "fair trial".

Students have campaigned for the abolition of the visitor and the system was called "doomed" by ministers last year. They called on vice-chancellors to produce a "modern, open and transparent system".

But it is understood that UUK wants to avoid changing the law and the reform of universities' statutes that would be necessary to abolish the visitor.

The paper will propose a voluntary ombudsman system, in which institutions that have a visitor would be asked to delegate student complaints to the new ombudsman.

It is unclear whether all institutions will cooperate if the scheme is voluntary. Some universities have made it clear that they are happy to retain their visitor.

But, some legal experts believe the survival of the visitor is unacceptable.

Because visitors' jurisdiction has been defined by the courts as exclusive, students studying at institutions with a visitor have no recourse to the courts for judicial review applications or for claims of breach of contract.

Those in post-1992 universities, which do not have visitors, have access to the courts.

Tim Birtwistle, lecturer in the school of law at Leeds Metropolitan University, said: "It is a matter of regret that the issue remains unresolved.

"Students at British universities remain subject to two totally distinct sets of procedures in the event of a dispute with their university. This is not merely a denial of the civil right to use an independent and impartial tribunal established by law, it is also subjecting a citizen to unregulated rules and procedures devised by an individual."

Mr Birtwistle, and Dennis Farrington at the University of Stirling, believe that a two-line clause in an act of Parliament would be sufficient to abolish the visitor.

"This would have the effect of establishing a single, final process for student disputes - the courts," Mr Birtwistle said.

The exclusion of staff from the scheme will prompt protest. Lecturers' unions have argued for an ombudsman for staff in the past. They said that staff complaints were not always restricted to areas that are covered by employment law.

* The High Court gave its backing to the visitor last week when it threw out a judicial review application from a student who had not gone to his university's visitor.

Theology student David Griffiths was expelled from King's College London after being accused of racism and using the college's email system to distribute electioneering material deemed to be offensive.

The judge ruled that Mr Griffiths should appeal to the university's visitor, the archbishop of Canterbury.

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