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Higher Education: Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Volume 703: debated on Monday 14 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they have taken to ensure that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education is seen to be fully independent of the universities.

My Lords, in designating the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education as the operator of a student complaints scheme, under Chapter 8, Section 13, of the Higher Education Act 2004, the Government were satisfied that the OIA was able to operate independently of the higher education sector. We are confident that that continues to be the case. The OIA provides a speedy and effective mechanism for resolving student complaints.

My Lords, I am delighted that the Government have confidence in the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, but it has been quite difficult for the public to have confidence because until very recently there were seven university board members to five independent members, and one of the supposedly independent members was a professor who was on the council of a leading university. Is it not important that both the council of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and its sub-committees should be seen to be independent of the university sector so that all those students and others who rely on the independence of its judgment can have confidence in it?

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord’s sentiments. My reading of the situation is that of the 13 board members, seven are independent and six are nominated by higher education institutions. Whether or not some of the seven have experience of or are involved in higher education, they are not nominated by a higher education institution. In fact, one of those nominated is a representative of the NUS. I agree that the body needs to be independent and perceived to be so. It is a company limited by guarantee and, therefore, the onus on the board is to take corporate responsibility for that independence, as I believe it does.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that from 2006 to 2007 complaints to the adjudicator increased by a quarter? What would she say is the significance of that?

My Lords, I can confirm my noble and learned friend’s comments. It is quite interesting to analyse the significance of that. It could be because there are more issues of concern, or it could be that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator is becoming more widely known and, therefore, more able to get involved with dispute resolution, which is very important. We need to keep the numbers in perspective. I believe that from more than 3.5 million students, 150 complaints were upheld, which gives us a sense of proportion.

My Lords, I understand the purpose of the noble Lord’s Question and the need for the body to be seen as independent. Having said that, I know from attending an international conference how very highly regarded the independence of the adjudicator is. Will the Minister confirm that students pursuing courses of higher education in colleges of further education have access to the independent adjudicator? If they do, will she ensure that those students are aware of any such right?

My Lords, I believe that that is the case, but it is still very early days for the office and we should be very encouraged by the enormously important work that it does. The organisation was led by the first independent adjudicator, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, whom we all should congratulate on her contribution. We also welcome the new independent adjudicator, Rob Behrens, and wish him well in his role. This is not something that we take lightly. The work of the independent adjudicator is also about ensuring that institutions know how to resolve complaints locally rather than elevating them to the higher status that this body represents.

My Lords, will the Minister say why the source of the funding for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education changed from being the Government in 2004 to subscriptions from a large number of universities? Surely in the light of this funding, students will rightly have little confidence in being treated impartially by the adjudication process.

My Lords, I am aware that there is a sliding scale of contributions made by institutions, depending on the number of students that they have. I am not sure why we would not want an independent higher education system to have a very independent and successful adjudicator. As far as I understand, the system is working very well and larger institutions are making a much greater financial contribution than the smaller ones, and we should be pleased with the way in which it is progressing.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of the complaints to the independent adjudicator have come from overseas students who feel that they are not getting value for money from their fees? Does she feel that this indicates that these fees might sometimes be too high or that the quality of service might be too low?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing overseas students’ fees into the discussion on the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. International students do make complaints, but they are not in the majority. According to the office’s annual report, the majority of complaints come from students who are concerned about their academic status, exam results and degree award. A smaller proportion—9.7 per cent—complains about the contract.