Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Resolving to Do Better: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Resolving to Do Better: Opinion

Article excerpt

As the rise in student complaints is not just a UK problem, sharing good practice is essential, argues Rob Behrens.

Student complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator - the higher education ombudsman in England and Wales - have risen by more than 20 per cent each year for five of the past six years.

Although the overall number of complaints is very small compared with the number of enrolled students, each complaint matters greatly to the student concerned and to their university.

The European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education is meeting in Oxford this week for its 10th anniversary conference. An increase in complaints in the context of rising university costs is a common experience, making the sharing of good practice - between what Tony Wright, when chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, called a "grump" of ombudsmen - not only worthwhile but imperative.

A common feature of universities in other jurisdictions is a local campus ombudsman who, independent of the institution's structures and alert to early signs of grievance, can resolve problems before they escalate into litigation. A recent OIA consultation examined the merits of this system but rejected it, because it replicated functions already carried out effectively in England and Wales by strong students' unions, well- resourced student services centres and the OIA, which acts as ombudsman as a last resort. As Mao Zedong put it (in another context): "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse."

Although there are differences, there is still much to learn and share. Early resolution of complaints is a critical common goal. It is not unusual for a student who complains to the OIA to have already spent six months, a year or even longer going through the internal complaints process at their university. That is a long time and for students on professional courses such as law, medicine and social work, where there is a time limit on qualification imposed by professional regulators, it can have lasting adverse implications.

Of course, any delays at OIA compound this difficulty. The more complaints there are, the greater the pressure to find quicker, more effective ways of dealing with cases, without jeopardising the quality of decisions. …

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