Disputes in British Universities

Privy Council overturns ruling by complaints ombudsman

Phil Baty

Published: 25 November 2005

The head of the Privy Council has overruled a judgment by the student complaints ombudsman, dealing a blow to the authority of the flagship body less than one year after it was given the powers to defend student rights, writes Phil Baty. In September, the Office for the Independent Adjudicator for student complaints ruled that Keele University should pay ?5,000 compensation to a former PhD student, Andy Terry.

The ombudsman, while rejecting Mr Terry's complaint that he had received inadequate supervision during his PhD, accepted that he had been incorrectly withdrawn from his studies - in breach of procedures - causing him "stress and inconvenience".

The OIA ordered that Keele offer the student compensation and that it review its complaints procedures.

But Baroness Amos, Keele's visitor and Lord President of the Privy Council, has ruled that the ombudsman had "not always taken the correct approach" to Mr Terry's complaint.

She said that the OIA had "strayed into the substance and merits of the dispute" when its remit was only to examine the procedural elements of the case.

She warned that the ombudsman had come "perilously close" to making an academic judgment, when such judgments must be left to academics themselves.

When Mr Terry's case was first brought to the visitor, in early 2004, the OIA - which was given formal legal status in December 2004 - was operating on a voluntary basis only.

The visitor, who had legal status as the quasi-judicial arbiter of student disputes at Keele at the time, asked the OIA to deal with the case and advise it how to proceed.

The Privy Council has ordered the university to review its decision - which was that Mr Terry's supervision had been adequate - then to re-examine the decision to withdraw him from his studies, and to "decide whether or not to make an offer of compensation and in which respects".

Ruth Deetch, the chief adjudicator at the OIA, said that the two bodies had different jurisdictions.

"Traditionally, the visitor had confined him or herself to reviewing the final decision of a university to see whether it was procedurally incorrect or unreasonable," she said. "The powers of the OIA are wider. We are empowered to review complaints about any 'act or omission' of a university, and our rules provide for a wider range of remedies, including compensation.

"It is therefore not surprising that the approach taken by the visitor is distinct from that taken by the OIA. We have discussed this issue with the Privy Council when offering our advice."

She said the differences would soon be immaterial as there were only a few cases left where the visitor would have the final say, as its jurisdiction had come to an end.