University challenge for ombudsman

Opinion: Third-level sector has much to gain and nothing to fear from additional oversight

Today is a landmark day in the history of the Office of the Ombudsman. Almost 25 years since it was first proposed, the commencement date for the Ombudsman Amendment Act 2012 has arrived. This marks a major expansion in the office's remit. It is a great day for accountability in the Irish public service and for the public institution that is the Office of the Ombudsman.

From today, complaints by members of the public can now be made to my office against an additional 180-plus public bodies, or bodies in receipt of public funds. The new additions include the universities and other publicly funded third-level colleges; Vocational Education Committees; the Student Grants Appeals Board; Fás; the Legal Aid Board; the National Treatment Purchase Fund; the Health Information and Quality Authority; the Family Support Agency; and Sustainable Energy Ireland, among others.

Oversight for first time
The inclusion of the third-level and further-education sector provides ombudsman oversight, for the first time, to an area on which the Government spent approximately €1.6 billion in 2012. In addition to the colleges and institutions, I can examine complaints about the administration of Student Universal Support Ireland, which was set up last year to administer all grant applications for third-level colleges.

While it is possible to anticipate some complaint areas in the third-level sector, such as delay in the payment of grants, quality of service, adequacy of supervision, changes to courses, etc, we do not necessarily know which other areas will arise in the Irish context.


It is important to state that, in the same way as I cannot look at clinical judgment in the medical context, I cannot look at academic judgment in the education sphere. I can, however, examine all administrative issues, including resourcing and service delivery, which affect the student experience.

The UK experience is of interest with regard to complaints in the third-level sector generally. Firstly, it is important to note that complaints to my equivalent there represent less than 0.05 per cent of the student enrolment figure in the UK – we might anticipate a similar figure here. Also, while first viewed with suspicion, my colleagues in the UK tell me they have extremely constructive relationships with the third-level sector, which now engages with them to improve service delivery.

Examples of complaints from the UK include one from a student who claimed that inadequate account was taken of mitigating circumstances (family illness) during his exams, contrary to the college’s procedure. In another case, a student complained that she had received an insufficient number of contact hours with her PhD supervisor, and, in another, a student claimed that he was unfairly treated when accused of academic misconduct (plagiarism). The first two complaints were upheld, the third was not.

I am acutely aware that reputation is the single-most important factor for Irish universities and third-level institutions in attracting students, both domestic and overseas, as well as in attracting research funding and top academics and research staff.

I also know this in turn feeds into the Irish economy in ways both tangible and intangible. At this time of economic flux it is more important than ever that our third-level institutions are supported to develop and innovate, and that they, in turn, use their resources to best effect. The future of our country depends, in part, on them.

The university sector has historically had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for being elitist and closed. I believe this has changed, along with the changing profile of students accessing third-level education in Ireland. In 1971/1972 there were just 25,776 students in third-level education in Ireland; by the 2011/2012 academic year this had increased to 163,068 – almost 90,000 of these being at the seven universities.

Universities are, after all, accountable to their students as well as to an international community of academics who adjudicate on their performance. They watch with trepidation the QS World University Rankings – the annual league table of the world’s top 700 universities – as they compete with universities worldwide, many of which have significantly more funding available to them. They are not newcomers to oversight.

Used properly, internal complaints procedures can be a key part of an organisation’s feedback and organisational learning, and should be seen as such. I have every confidence that the agencies coming within my office’s remit today, including the third-level sector, will co-operate with me and my staff in a spirit of constructive dialogue.

Emily O’Reilly is the ombudsman