Anita Stuhmcke of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) finds that recent research on the role of the ombud in higher education brings fresh insights and usefully pokes and prods at an international institution, and there is more to do in terms of future research.
There are moments when the delivery of a scholarly work will shift the practice of institutions. Rob Behrens’ Being an Ombudsman in Higher Education: A Comparative Study is an example of such work. Indeed, such a study could only have been written by Behrens, who has extensive practical and theoretical appreciation of the role of a university ombudsman. Prior to his current appointment as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in the United Kingdom, Behrens was the Independent Adjudicator and Chief Executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales) between 2008 and 2016 and Chair of the European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education. Behrens’ own lived experience across dispute resolution in the higher education sector informs this work, resulting in a unique blend of empirical research and personal observations grounded within a rich resource of international literature on ombudsman. I highly recommend this report. It is a very interesting read, and it pushes forward boundaries, making a significant original international contribution to analysing the ombudsman in the higher education sector and the institution more generally.
‘An existential struggle’ is the pithy Chapter 1 title. This chapter captures the difficult ideological questions that confront a university ombudsman such as: Whether the culture of autonomy and freedom of academic judgment undermine the perceived effectiveness of an ombudsman? And should an ombudsman adjudicate and what is a complaint? These are teasing questions underscoring complex issues for the higher education ombudsman sector, leading the reader seamlessly into the discussion of the history, role and context of higher education ombudsmen in Chapter 2.
‘Ombudsmen being funded by students, international variations on perceptions of independence, ombudsmen as ‘grumps’ ‘
At this point I must declare a personal interest. As a former Australian university ombud (at the University of Technology Sydney) and as an interested higher education ombudsman scholar I am both embarrassed and delighted to reveal that I learnt much from Chapter 2. Ombudsmen being funded by students, international variations on perceptions of independence, ombudsmen as ‘grumps’ – these are just a few of the selection of gems which will be of interest to both new and old institutional stakeholders. Behrens also adds observations that make me pause to think. As an example, Behrens claims that ‘at core, ombudsmen in higher education are engaged in helping to safeguard, as far as possible, a positive student experience’. I do not fully agree with this observation. I believe that an ombudsman responds to a ‘higher calling’ than that of the complainants, the calling being to act to improve the systems and process of the university. However, I acknowledge that it may follow that this thereby necessarily improves the student experience. As I said, it makes me pause to think.
‘Are ombuds ‘at core, ombudsmen in higher education are engaged in helping to safeguard, as far as possible, a positive student experience’?’
‘…ombudsmen are the Cinderellas of higher education – they rarely go to the ball…’ – so begins the discussion in Chapter 3, which documents the lived experience of ombudsmen in higher education. Here the discussion centres on the survey responses of 60 higher education ombudsman respondents from 18 countries. This is the most expansive survey of international organisation ombudsmen of which I am aware and as a consequence the report provides a fascinating map of the shared international experience of the higher education sector. Postgraduate students, sexual harassment, disability and complainant behaviour are all identified as challenging issues across the sector. Difference is also exposed, however. Adjudication is addressed as perhaps the most significant contested site amongst higher education ombudsmen. Here I would have liked to be the beneficiary of Behrens’ further exploration of the limits of the institution and the impact of the culture within which it operates. While the discussion in Chapter 3 is useful across all models of the ombudsman – organisational, industry and government – the views expressed could have been of much wider application by further discussion of the generic aspects of the model itself.
‘Independence’ and ‘Trust’: My plea for a further exploration of the institution and its limits is, however, partly answered in Chapter 4 (independence) and Chapter 5 (trust). Behrens addresses these big-ticket themes with the depth and nuance of a practitioner. For example, Behrens casts a practical eye over institutional independence, contextualising the importance of line management (highlighting that reporting to the human resources department is not appropriate) and possible role conflict (45% of survey respondents combined their work as an ombudsman with another university responsibility) while pushing forward discussion in this area through specifically identifying leadership as an important criteria for independence. This is a topic which richly deserves wider theoretical analysis across the institution of the ombudsman – university, industry and government. Trust is applied to the same scrutiny. Here, in Chapter 5, Behrens’ ability to balance the practical with the theoretical is at its peak. On the one hand, there are practical suggestions made to promote trust, such as showing respect for individual service users through courteous letters and emails. On the other, this is balanced by nuanced insights into the challenge for higher education ombudsmen of conflating complaint outcomes with views of fairness and independence.
‘Behrens addresses these big-ticket themes with the depth and nuance of a practitioner.’
‘I am proud to have been one of them’: The report ends with a thought-provoking discussion of the future and challenges that confront higher education ombudsmen underscored by a convincing rationale for recognition of the sector as a profession. This discussion in Chapter 6 alludes to both the nobility of the role performed and the challenges and compromises that the sixty individual survey respondents documented. It is here that Behrens makes poignant use of the survey to call for a comprehensive movement to reform the role of the ombudsman in international higher education. The call made is bold – it is that the entire higher education ombudsman enterprise be subject to change managing, that it move towards modern professionalism as a status required to enhance the role of the institution. This call is of value to all ombudsman, and its applicability well beyond higher education sector ombudsman should be explored. Behrens has posed the institution a powerful challenge – that professionalism should apply to all ombuds as a recognition and protection of the growing significance and increasing import of the role performed in dispute resolution between the powerful and the vulnerable.
Improvements and conclusion
How could this report be improved? Very simply, I ask for more. More on the differences between ombuds and how to overcome them; more on notions of the ‘sliding scale’ of independence and the concept of an organisational ombudsman; more on the relationship between higher education ombudsman and bodies such as courts and tribunal and government ombudsman. I suggest a second volume and acknowledge that the danger of producing a scholarly work which is the first of its kind is that the reader is left desiring more. I urge Behrens to continue to produce works such as this report – to combine his practical experience with a nuanced understanding of history and theory and thus continue to prod, poke and rearrange the craft of ombuds and thus shift the practice of institutions.
About the author:
Anita Stuhmcke is a Professor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Faculty of Law. Anita has a strong interest in all things ombud with research interests that cross areas of social, economic and political change such as the transition between citizen and consumer in dispute resolution. Anita was appointed to act as a university Student Ombud continuously from 1997-2002 with her most recent return to that role being in 2016.