July 04, 2017

Landmark Study Compares University Ombuds Internationally

Rob Behrens, the former Independent Adjudicator and Chief Executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England and Wales, has written a report about the role and status of University Ombuds in Europe, the Americas, Australasia, and elsewhere.  Published by the European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education, the paper "Being an Ombudsman in Higher Education: A Comparative Study," was released last week.

The paper is based on ENOHE's 2015 survey of its members, ENOHE archives (including conference papers, reports and publications dating back to 2003, Behren's own research of the profession, and his own decade of experience as an Ombuds.

Behrens writes in Chapter One:

The survey of practitioners revealed a very wide range of activities covered by higher education ombudsmen in their working lives, making them more generalist than is sometimes assumed. There was important consensus about operational principles, the most important roles carried out, and the most challenging case issues to be addressed. There was also significant new evidence on the biggest challenges to respondents in their role as ombudsmen. Of particular importance are ‘challenges to personal growth’, ‘lack of independence,’ and ‘access to resources’. These suggest more of an existential struggle than is commonly recognised. 
The one area where there was no consensus was on the question of whether ombudsmen in higher education should engage in adjudication to resolve complaints. This is more than an operational disagreement and for some practitioners more like an ideological divide. It goes to the heart of the identity of the ombudsman in higher education. 
In general, then, ombudsmen in higher education constitute a resilient but threatened, evolving, non-legal form of dispute resolution. Their focus has been largely (but not exclusively) on addressing perceived unfairness and wrong-doing to students in their higher education life. This is an on-going challenge: ‘Grievances will arise within universities… across any one of the vast array of activities a university undertakes’ and conflict is endemic to higher education institutions as to all complex organisations with multiple pursuits, competing interests and stakeholders.
The contents include:
Chapter One: An existential struggle 
Chapter Two: History, role and context
  • A brief history of the emergence of higher education ombudsmen
  • ‘Ombudsman’ or ‘Ombuds’?
  • Organisational forms of higher education ombudsmen
  • What higher education ombudsmen do and why they matter
  • Context of higher education ombudsmen work – students’ unions and higher education institutions’ services
  • Higher education ombudsmen – searching for a definition
  • Mapping the diversity of ombudsmen in higher education
Chapter Three: Lived experience
  • The 2015 ENOHE survey
  • Core operational principles
  • Range of activities
  • Most challenging cases
  • Adjudication
Chapter Four: Being independent
  • Criteria for independence
  • Mandate
  • Method and terms of appointment
  • Operating and reporting arrangements
  • Role Conflict
  • Resources
Chapter Five: Making an impact: competence and trust
  • Contextualising assessments of competence
  • Competence in providing redress or facilitating the redress process
  • Informed policy and operational feedback: fostering standards
  • What is public trust?
  • Developing public trust
  • Honesty and transparency
  • Trustworthiness
Chapter Six: Being professional
This thorough and unique treatise is immediately part of the Ombuds canon.  It should be read by every practicing (and practising) Ombuds in higher education.  It is free and available for download.  (Being an Ombudsman.)

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