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Being an ombudsman in higher education: a review

  • 7 July 2017
  • By Diana Beech

‘Ombudsmen in higher education are a growing and distinct cadre’, writes Rob Behrens, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education and Independent Adjudicator and Chief Executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) for Higher Education in England and Wales between 2008 and 2016. It is these eight years of experience as an ombudsman for higher education, plus a further two years as an ombudsman in legal services, which inspired Behrens to produce a thorough and comparative study into the experiences and activities of 60 higher education ombudsmen in 18 different countries. The study was recently published by the European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education (ENOHE) and marks a fitting end to Behrens’ time in higher education.

As Behrens explains, ombudsmen in higher education perform the vital function of ‘safeguarding students against unfairness, discrimination and poor service delivery’. They ‘speak truth unto power’ and endeavour to operate independently, confidentially and impartially. Yet, they face numerous challenges in their daily work. For one, the autonomy of academic judgement has largely confined the role of higher education ombudsmen to matters outside the professional judgement of scholars, teachers and supervisors. There is also disagreement in the sector about whether ombudsmen operating within universities and colleges can ever properly be independent from the institutions over which they have oversight. Tensions are common and, in extreme cases, some ombudsmen have been sacked or have resigned after coming into conflict with institutional authorities.

In an informative chapter on the history, role and context of the profession, we learn that the culture of ombudsmen in higher education is 60 years old. Conventionally believed to have originated in the 1960s in North America in response to civil rights movements, public protests and student advocacy, higher education ombudsmen became a means to defend student grievances against maladministration. Behrens describes the OIA in England and Wales as ‘a comparative newcomer to the higher education ombudsman scene’, having only been established in 2004. Since then, however, ombudsmen in the UK have been referred to as both ‘a blessing’ and a ‘grump’.

In an honest and open attempt to raise the profile of the profession he is proud to have been a part of, Behrens highlights the central role ombudsmen play in helping to provide redress for staff and students dissatisfied with their higher education experience. The complaints they deal with range from the routine (such as disputes over parking tickets) to the serious (including staff tenure disputes, sit-ins and arrests). Behrens admirably uses his in-depth knowledge of the profession to ensure the reader is aware of the severity and potentially life-changing events that ombudsmen in higher education have to address. He admits, ombudsmen must be accessible and give advice, sometimes to ‘habitual complainers’, and be prepared to deal with complex and sensitive issues, including mental health matters and incidences of sexual harassment.

As Behrens reveals, however, higher education institutions have not always welcomed the feedback of ombudsmen, sometimes seeing it as interfering in their autonomy. A number of ombudsmen in Behrens’ study report interference from institutional line management, thereby compromising their independence. As a result, higher education ombudsmen have had to develop thick skins. They have no coercive power but rely on a combination of authority and the power of their personalities. They must also be able to manage disappointment, ambiguity and contradictions.

Behrens’ study shows that there is at least resounding consensus among practitioners about what higher education ombudsmen do. Many ombudsmen go beyond simply giving advice, with some offering counselling, mediation or undertaking a representational role at disciplinary boards. A large number of higher education ombudsmen in Behrens’ study see themselves not simply as ‘complaints resolvers’ but also as ‘change agents’. The 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey, released by HEPI and the Higher Education Academy, suggests that the role of higher education ombudsmen could well become more important in the future as students’ perceptions of value for money continue to fall and student wellbeing-levels reduce.

Higher education policymakers would, therefore, do well to heed the lessons of Behrens’ study. To ensure ombudsmen in the sector remain empowered, governments and institutions should commit to continuing professional development for ombudsmen and encourage them to foster networks outside of their own institutions, both to share examples of good practice and to resolve disputes. In the UK and Ireland, employers of higher education ombudsmen could point their employees to the Ombudsman Association, which offers professional Award and Certificate programmes in Ombudsman Practice through Queen Margaret University (QMU), Edinburgh. QMU also offers a Masters degree in Dispute Resolution, which has been endorsed by the UK ombudsmen featured in Behrens’ study.

By writing this report, Behrens has effectively demonstrated the value and quality of the work of higher education ombudsmen – a role that is certain to become ever more important in the current climate of ‘marketisation’. If policymakers and university management teams take just one message from Behrens’ findings, it is to recognise the struggle of higher education ombudsmen in this ever-developing profession and to take steps to support them in their mission to uphold the world-class reputation of the UK higher education sector.

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