Student complaints: are campus ombuds the answer?
The potential role of campus ombudsmen is a bit of a hot topic at the moment in England and Wales, at least in the world of student complaints. Campus ombuds have been around for some time in the USA. Most universities there seem to have someone in this role. In the UK, however, they are a relatively little known phenomenon.
What is a ‘campus ombuds’?
The International Ombudsman Association (IOA, http://www.ombudsassociation.org), the professional body for ombuds in the USA and elsewhere, describes different types of creature – classical, organisational and advocate ombuds. Campus ombuds fall into the organisational ombuds category, which the IOA defines as ‘a designated neutral who is appointed or employed by an organisation to facilitate the informal resolution of concerns of employees, managers, students and, sometimes, external clients of the organisation’.
Most campus ombuds operating in the US do not investigate complaints themselves but act as a resource for staff and students who experience difficulties and might be considering raising a formal grievance. Although operationally and personally independent, they are for the most part accountable to the university that employs them. Their operational independence therefore depends on the respect given to the role by the university administration and on the ability of the individual ombuds to resist any attempt to compromise their independence.
A model example
To find out more, I recently met with David Rasch, the campus ombuds of Stanford University, a private university in Palo Alto, California that has some 15,000 students and around 2,000 academic staff.
David describes his role as a confidential resource; he emphasises empowerment and he uses mediation approaches, although he is not a trained mediator. He describes what he does as:
- non-judgmental and supportive listening
- confidential discussion
- coaching people to independently negotiate and resolve problems
- identifying and reframing roots of the problem
- developing strategies for resolutions that fit all parties’ interests and goals
- opening channels of communication
- negotiating, facilitating or mediating between some or all parties
- developing and recommending systemic solutions
Unlike ombuds here in the UK, David (and his campus colleagues throughout the States) does not conduct formal investigations. Interestingly, he can initiate an inquiry if he becomes aware of an issue – a power not shared by most of the ombudsmen in the UK, who can only take on a complaint that has been raised by an individual complainant (or group of complainants). He keeps no records of any discussions, something that helps protect the confidentiality he promises to those who use his service.
With a PhD and a background in psychology and counselling, David manages to gain credibility from both staff and students as well as wider staff at the university.
Using the campus ombuds is voluntary, and he has no targets to meet in terms of reducing the number of formal grievances or legal claims against the university. Staff and students with a problem are encouraged to see him before filing a grievance, and he asks them to say (in a feedback form) whether they would have used a formal process if they had not gone to him. From this he has a sense of the impact of his work.
About half the complaints he sees relate to employment issues from non-academic staff. Another 15% are from academic staff, and these tend to relate to the tenure process, problems with students and departmental politics. Just over one-third are student complaints, and these range across undergraduate and postgraduate students. He reports monthly to the university’s President on demographics and types of cases but not on specific cases.
Campus ombuds have been referred to by critics as a means to “stop students from occupying the dean’s office” and by proponents as a “conscience on campus”. Listening to David, my sense was that the role of campus ombuds is hugely valuable, albeit possibly more so for a university’s administration than for a university’s students or staff. Ombuds can keep grievances and grumbles from escalating into full-blown legal claims, ever a consideration in such a litigious country. But even for those with the grievances or grumbles it offers a low-key way to deal with them without inviting the personal and professional destruction that so often accompanies disputes.
However valuable the role, however, it is one that depends heavily on the integrity and robustness of the individual ombuds, and there appears to be little protection for those post-holders pressured by an unsavoury administration to breach confidence or keep a lid on dissent. I have no doubt that David Rasch at Stanford is solid in both these characteristics. Others might not be, and their appointment and dismissal is at the whim of the administration.
Useful in the UK?
How might this role work here in the UK?
This summer the Department for Business (BIS, which oversees higher education in England and Wales) published its response to its White Paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’ and its subsequent Technical Consultation. Buried within a long document addressing student finance and regulation of higher education is a brief mention of campus ombudsmen. BIS notes that among respondents to its consultation, ‘The idea of campus ombudsmen and regional networks was supported by many but seen as unnecessary or inappropriate by others.’
Not an overwhelming endorsement, then. It will be interesting to see how the issue of campus ombuds is handled by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) in its response to its own Pathway 3 Consultation. This consultation was carried out in late 2011 (see www.oiahe.org.uk) after the OIA was tasked by BIS to consult on ways to encourage early dispute resolution. The OIA is expected to publish the results and its response soon. The issue is also the focus of work carried out by the Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service (IDRAS), a consultancy body for higher education.
The OIA and IDRAS
For those of you who aren’t familiar with either body, a bit of background. The OIA was established in 2004 and is the independent reviewer of student complaints about higher education institutions in England and Wales. It can only take on complaints once they have been through the university’s internal complaints procedure. Yet recent years have seen a steady increase in complaints, with resulting pressure on its staff to deal with cases more quickly. Meanwhile, complaints appear to be growing more complex.
IDRAS covers both student and staff disputes within universities. It produced, in 2008 and 2009, several reports on the state of play of dispute resolution within universities, including an overview of campus ombudsmen.
The OIA’s Pathway 3 consultation sought views on how best to promote the resolution of complaints at an early, internal stage, including the introduction of a campus ombudsman role. The consultation included a survey of the campus ombuds role in other countries, including Australia and the USA, where the role is well established.
‘Ombudsman’ culture in the UK
Here, the term ‘campus ombuds’ is problematic. We have a professional body, The Ombudsman Association (formerly known as the British and Irish Ombudsman Association, or BIOA), whose members are the various complaint-handling schemes for central and local government, housing and various private sectors, including utility companies, financial services and legal services. The OIA is a full voting ombudsman member, as is the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, which investigates complaints about higher education in Scotland. This means both schemes meet the Association’s membership criteria – including independence and accountability, as well as the power to investigate complaints and make determinations.
Campus ombuds in this sense would not meet the criteria for full membership of the Ombudsman Association. Furthermore, introducing a campus ombuds role here would risk creating confusion with what is in effect a national ombudsman scheme, the OIA, and put in place yet another hurdle for students to overcome before their complaint can be considered independently.
Mediation, not campus ombuds
In the UK we already have a range of mediation options for student complaints that could be developed in the push for more early dispute resolution, before complaints go to the OIA, or even in conjunction with an OIA investigation. There are a few well-established campus mediation services including Dundee University (see http://www.dundee.ac.uk/academic/edr/), which has been operating since 2009, as well as mediators and mediation providers with expertise in higher education (eg Equalities Mediation Service (www.equalities-mediation.org.uk) and IDRAS).
As a mediator with many years of experience in disability discrimination claims in higher education, I confess to having an interest in seeing more mediation taking place, and earlier, in such cases. I see the damage done to students and universities when complaints are dragged out over many years, limiting the options for resolution.
But my vision is not to steer all student complaints into mediation by default. It isn’t right for every case, or for every party in dispute. It is one of a range of tools that should be available for resolving such complaints, and it sits neatly with the authoritative role and investigative expertise of the OIA and, in Scotland, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. I’m not averse to having campus ombuds as an additional tool, but I worry that it will provide another hurdle and will add to the time involved in resolving student complaints. I also worry that it will be expensive for individual universities to establish and maintain an ombuds office. And I worry that, without independence, it won’t be a role trusted by students.
Instead, I’d like to see regional networks of specialised, independent mediators established, with the OIA’s support, which universities can call upon as and when needed, and as early as possible in the life of a dispute.
I look forward to seeing the OIA’s response to its Pathway 3 consultation. I’m hoping it will challenge assumptions about how the concept of campus ombuds will translate here and that it will explore the benefits of having access to independent mediation for student complaints.