The University Visitor

(Letter in the THES, 15. October 1999)

Attempts to justify the visitor's role (Letters, THES, October 1) miss the point. There are just two crucial issues. Through an accident of history, students are subject to different legal paths at universities; and the Human Rights Act poses an enormous question mark over the legitimacy of the visitor.

We must recognise these facts and address the issues raised, which include equality of treatment, speedy resolution of disputes and the changing relationship between student and University.

Tim Birtwistle, School of Law, Leeds Metropolitan University

(Letter from THES, 8 October 1999)

In continuing to defend the indefensible (Letters, THES, October 1), Graham Zellick once again reveals his contempt for independence and natural justice.

Anyone who considers that the Archbishop of Canterbury truly independent from the University of Kent, the Bishop of Durham from the University of Durham or the Queen from those Universities granted royal charters has clearly been spending too much time with their head in a book.

Zellick could easily have been reading from Kafka's The Trial which offers the following nugget of advice to students :"The waiting is not pointless, the only thing that's pointless is independent intervention". Such archaic views of the visitor belong at the beginning of the 20th. Century, not at the end. As we enter the new millenium, it is fine time to call an end to the visitor.

Zellick's assertion that the visitor complies with principles of natural justice ignores the fact that in visitorial cases students are not allowed to appear in person, there are no time limits, no written rules or regulations and there is no explanation given when the case is finally resolved.

More often than not, this is in favour of the institution and takes years; but even when the visitor rules in favour of the student, the case never reaches the Law Reports. So much for transparency and independent review.

In staunchly supporting a system that makes decisions behind closed doors, what do universities have to hide ? As Kafka wrote : " The proceedings were in general kept secret not only from the public but from the defendant too. I'm not saying the proceedings are slapdash but this is the expression I'd like to offer for your private consideration."

Don Standford, Project Officer, National Postgraduate Office.

(Letter from the THES 24. September 1999)

Graham Zellick's eulogy to the visitor (Letters, THES, September 17.) indulges in the same "piffle" he is keen to dismiss. Whether he likes it or not, the Human Rights Act will not only force the abandonment of the visitorial system but it will also usher in an era of public accountability and student rights. Universities are finally realising that they will have to stop lording it up ans start playing by the rules like every other publicly-funded sector.

By praising a visitorial system in which he so obviously has a vested interest, he is guilty of the same double standards and lack of principles of which he accuses others. Is this not the same vice-chancellor who took a principled stand against Diana Warwick's potential conflict of interest in representing both the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the government ? That he still endorses an outlandish system that lacks independence and does not adhere to even the most basic principles of natural justice smacks of hypocrisy.

Speaking on Radio 4's File on Four last year, Zellick waxed lyrical about a "rather splendid system" that "protects the world og higher education". For students, the visitorial system is neither splendid nor does its regalia offer any kind of protection against injustice and inadequate provision. Long live the Queen, the visitor is dead.

Don Standiford, Project Officer, National Postgraduate Committee

Australia - cheap, nasty and quick Lord Chancellor's admission

Heads accept that Visitor is doomed

Visitor Doomed

University Visitors are a creaky court of appeal for students with unsolved grievances - but the archaic and arcane system is on its last legs, reports Donald MacLeod

It's one of the Queen's less glamorous jobs, shared with the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh, several bishops, a couple of hereditary peers, the Master of the Rolls and Mary Archer. As university Visitors, they are ultimately responsible for arbitrating students' appeals and complaints. But not, it seems, for much longer.

If the idea of a student dissatisfied with his or her degree result petitioning Her Majesty had a certain quaint charm, in practice the system had led to growing criticism and scandalous delays. Talks about reform got nowhere for years - universities were not keen to make it easier for students to complain. Now, however, David Blunkett, the education secretary, has been warned that the whole archaic series of arrangements is about to collapse as the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into English law next month.

Baroness Blackstone, the education minister, has signalled clearly that she would like to see an ombudsman as part of a reform of the way student complaints are dealt with, and has asked the higher education sector to come up with proposals by the end of the year. Next week the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is to discuss the issue. It appears to be moving towards the idea of an ombudsman - something the NUS has been pressing for for some time.

But the government may not have that long before the system breaks down. From October 2 any student challenging a university's Visitor in the courts would be "almost certain to succeed", says Dennis Farrington, a leading legal expert in the field, in a report to the Department for Education and Employment.

He urges the government and the universities to establish an ombudsman to determine appeals, believing it to be the fairest system for both the students and the institutions and the best way of complying with theHuman Rights Act which brings the European Convention into play.

Confusion and uncertainty surround the Visitor system in the minds of the Visitors themselves, let alone students, according to Farrington, an education consultant to Lawfords solicitors. (At one unnamed Oxbridge college, the rules setting out the procedure are in Latin.)

Not all universities have Visitors - students at the former polytechnics have to go to court if they cannot get satisfaction from their university authorities. (Hertfordshire University has, however, appointed Lady Archer as its Visitor, although she is not one in law.)

The old universities and Oxbridge colleges (though not, confusingly, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge) have a variety of Visitors, and the Queen acts either through the Lord President of the Privy Council or the Lord Chancellor at different institutions. Some are elected by their governing bodies, which raises the question of whether they are truly independent, while others are hereditary. There are no ethnic minority Visitors.

Farrington's survey of universities found wide discrepancies facing students at different universities if they wanted to take their case to the Visitor. Not only does the Queen have two totally different methods of dealing with appeals or complaints, but the bishops and others appeared to be evolving their procedures as they went along. Some, like Sheila Cameron, QC, who acts for the Archbishop of Canterbury, hold oral hearings, though most do not.

Underfunding has led to cases dragging on for years. Appeals to the Privy Council were at one point being taken home by a junior civil servant at weekends to be studied, Farrington revealed. The Lord Chancellor's department apologised to Bath postgraduate student Neil McDougall for failing to provide guidance on procedure and timetables.

Getting access to the Visitor in the first place is a straightforward process in some places which mention it in the student handbook; but a number of universities said there was no need to tell students about the existence of the Visitorial process because there were no complaints. "There is some confusion over the legal powers of the Visitor," says Farrington, noting that some Visitors appear to be exceeding their common law authority. And although the Privy Council has drafted procedural guidelines in clear modern English, not all the universities concerned knew of them.

He adds that the language of the statutes - even when it is in English - is often difficult to follow, and in some of the older colleges actually rule out appeals from students (apart from scholars and exhibitioners when deprived of their awards). Universities in Northern Ireland and Wales appeared to have better information than those in England.

Concluding that the Visitorial system was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, Farrington said that unless there was legislation or a government commitment to legislate, a student told to pursue a claim to a Visitor after October 2 would almost certainly succeed in mounting a challenge in the courts: "I continue to advocate the establishment of a single system to act as the ultimate recourse for students who remain dissatisfied with the institutional response to an appeal or complaint."

An ombudsman would not be used often if universities had adequate internal procedures and considered alternatives like mediation.

Jeremy Hoad, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, is backing the ombudsman proposal to end the "bizarre, byzantine and archaic" Visitor system. He urges universities to see complaints as a way of improving teaching and supervision of postgraduates rather than a threat.

But there is still considerable support for tradition. Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester, is Visitor to five Oxford colleges as well as the independent school Winchester College, and is not convinced that a uniform national system is needed, provided that all students have access to speedy and effective remedies.

Delays in the Lord Chancellor's department are not a reason for abolishing all Visitors, he says.

The bishop has only once been called on to arbitrate a dispute between a don and his college. He appointed a lawyer as "commissary" to adjudicate and the matter was resolved.

The Oxbridge colleges feel the Visitorial system is quicker and cheaper than the courts or an ombudsman, says Scott-Joynt. The role of the Visitor is not primarily to resolve disputes but to see that the founder's wishes about the character of the institution are maintained, he says.

"Educational institutions might want to see their independent Visitor count in certain circumstances be an important element in any argument about character or independence."

Cause for complaint

Neil McDougall, a former postgraduate student, has been involved in an eight-year dispute with Bath University, alleging poor supervision, inadequate exam procedures and maladministration. His appeal to the Queen as visitor was handled by the Lord Chancellors' department, which took 19 months to consider his case and earlier this year apologised for "misplacing" his file.

Six requests for guidance by McDougall were ignored - the department acknowledged its failure to provide guidance on timetables and procedures for presenting his petitions. From May to August 1997 pressure of work for the incoming government meant there was an embargo on visitorial work, and for more than a year only one member of staff was available to deal with cases, and she was "subject to other ministerial priorities".

McDougall may have received an apology but the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine concluded that "administrative weaknesses do not justify further visitorial intervention" and he regarded the matter as closed.

Kevin Wilkinson moved his wife and two children from Dubai, where he had a well-paid teaching job, to begin a PhD at Aston University in 1997 - only to find his agreed supervisor was not available. After a long and acrimonious dispute he moved to Norwich, where he is studying for his doctorate at the University of East Anglia. Michael Wright, the vice-chancellor, apologised and agreed to refund Wilkinson's fees: "I agree that your experience was far from satisfactory and that the department of languages should have acted more expeditiously to put satisfactory alternative arrangements in place."

Wilkinson won legal aid to sue Aston for 100,000 in damages, and the case continues. The university declined further comment.

Francis Foecke's dispute with Bristol University has lasted 14 years, since he was accused of cheating in his final exams for computer sciences and maths. He got first-class results in all 13 papers. A committee set up by the university's board of examiners ruled after a two-day hearing that he had cheated in parts of answers to three statistics questions. There were alleged similarities between some of his solutions and model answers prepared by the examiners. He got an ordinary degree.

Foecke took his case to Bristol's visitor - the Queen acting through the Privy Council - who in a brief letter upheld the university's decision. "The visitor is an establishment body and looks after its own side," he commented. His lawyers attempted to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights but his application was rejected. Foecke says he now has no further legal options to clear his name unless he can obtain lecture notes from fellow students on his statistics course in 1985/86. These would, he believes, show that he could have produced his answers legitimately.

Who are the visitors?

The Queen, acting through the privy Council of the Lord Chancellor. Enough said.

The Queen Mother. Now that her 100th birthday celebrations are over, she'll be happy to give you her full attention.

The Duke of Edinburgh. Overseas students might think twice.

The Duke of Kent. Best not to call during Wimbledon fortnight.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The hotline to God should see you all right.

The Bishops of Durham, Ely, Exeter, Lincoln, Oxford, St David's and Winchester. Top drawer theologians to a man - and they are all men - but wouldn't you feel more comfortable with an archbishop?

The Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, aka Henry George Charles Alexander Herbert. If you want a private word, try going to Royal Ascot.

Lord De L'Isle of Penshurst, aka Philip John Algernon Sidney. Since 1979 has described himself as a landowner, so keep him sweet by chatting about the problems of first-time buyers.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Has done everything else, so why not this?

Lord Howe. Ditto.

Lady Warnock of Weekes. Ditto

Master of the Rolls, aka Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers. May get you off on a legal technicality.

Sir Anthony Evans. Grammar school boy; as close to a pleb as you'll get on this list.

Lord Griffiths of Govilon. Especially useful for those disputes on "golf course studies" degrees.

Lady Archer. Has first-hand experience in the witness box and is used to getting a result.