Winning for students

DianneHayter.jpgDianne Hayter succeeds in getting Ministers to give all in higher education access to an Ombudsman

It was one of the last Labour government’s many achievements that, in 2004, we set up the system of complaints handling to deal with students concerns about their universities – effectively an Ombudsman, but actually called the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).

To date, the system has worked well. Once a student has taken any issue about their course (such as failing to deliver on an advertised course, or bullying and welfare matters) to the university, they can now refer it to the OIA if they remain unhappy with the outcome.

During the same intervening decade however, we’ve seen both the extension of Student Loans to undergraduates and the expansion of teaching to degree level at non-university colleges (albeit on behalf of or approved by a recognised university).  All students attending these (mostly private) institutions are outside of the adjudicator system – simply because so few of them existed when the legislation was first passed.

Last night in the Lords, during Report stage debates on the Consumer Rights Bill, Coalition Ministers acknowledged this changing landscape of higher education and the fact that only a handful of alternative providers have so far joined the OIA. We welcomed the government’s admission, not least as it was the key reason why we said new legislation was needed.

Labour believes that access to an ombudsman is, for all consumers a basic consumer right, whether as patients, or as purchasers of energy, legal, financial or local government services. It helps ensure they get a good service but also drives up standards. We have a proud record of establishing and supporting Ombudsmen. That is why we took the initiative and tabled an amendment to this Bill, first at Committee and then Report, to extend the OIA’s purview to all undergraduates.

To be fair to Ministers, they eventually accepted the logic of our argument and tabled their own amendment enabling ‘a much wider group of students in future to have access to the OIA’s complaints handling scheme’. They also thanked us for pushing the issue and ‘ensuring that higher education students receiving public support should have access to this valuable service’.

Now that the government has seen the light, all students of higher education will have a degree of value.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Consumer Affairs Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 25th November 2014

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