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Universities are facing historic constitutional reform to pave the way for a higher education ombudsman for student complaints.
Universities UK confirmed this week that it will seek parliamentary legislation to sweep away ancient university statutes and create a powerful "independent reviewer" for complaints. Almost two years after ministers said universities must set up a fair and modern complaints system, the sector has reached broad agreement on a new ombudsman.
After a meeting of the UUK board last week, heads of the old chartered universities finally accepted reform of their statues to end the jurisdiction over complaints of their ancient "visitors". Traditionally, the quasi-judicial visitor, usually a senior bishop or aristocrat appointed for obscure historical reasons, has handled complaints rather than their going to court. Ministers said the system lacked transparency and independence, and called for reform amid concerns that the visitor may breach Human Rights legislation that guarantees a fair and open trial.
Post-1992 universities will also have to reform their governance, which currently forbids them from delegating responsibility for student complaints to third parties.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "We are pleased that sufficient consensus has been reached for Universities UK to now take steps to ensure that we have a modern and improved student complaints system."
UUK was due to meet higher education minister Margaret Hodge today to work through the details of the plan. UUK hoped the Department for Education and Skills would provide funding for the new reviewer, as a system funded solely by institutions' subscriptions could be seen as lacking independence.
David Anderson Evans, the UUK consultant responsible for the reforms, said the reviewer's decisions would be binding and that universities would not be able to opt out of the system. He expected that students would use the reviewer when they had exhausted all internal procedures.
A further UUK consultation paper setting out the reviewer's terms of reference and powers is expected shortly.
The new system will not, in the foreseeable future, cover complaints by university staff against their employers.