In this comparative study, Rob Behrens reviews the lived experience of higher education ombuds in 18 countries. Having had unique access to the archives of the European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education (ENOHE), and drawing on a network-wide survey, he has produced a comprehensive account of European practitioners.
Higher education ombudsmen operate from a wide variety of institutional contexts, from singleton operations within individual universities to national ombudsman schemes. They are bound by a strong adherence to the principles of independence, impartiality, confidentiality and informality, and by a broad consensus including giving advice to (mainly) students, disseminating information and being agents of change.
Where higher education ombudsmen disagree is over the interpretation of operational principles. Many use adjudication to resolve disputes, whereas many others reject adjudication and rely on the soft power of mediation to enable disputants to resolve their own conflicts. Additionally, there is strong disagreement about whether campus ombudsmen, operating from within universities can ever be properly independent from the universities they have oversight of. Behrens analyses the ways in which ombudsmen assert their independence and discovers ombudsmen as robust, assertive and properly distant from university authorities or government structures. However, he reports on a small number of ombudsmen whose mandates have been insufficient to prevent interference and obstruction. He argues that higher educational ombudsmen need to develop the professional nature of their activity to ensure commonality of qualifications, competency, and continuing professional development.
About the researcher:
Rob Behrens was appointed Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in the UK in April 2017. He is Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, Chair of ENOHE, and a member of the Board of UCAS, the University admissions service in the United Kingdom. He was Independent Adjudicator and Chief Executive of the OIA (the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales) between 2008 and 2016.