This week I was intrigued to read about the UG being forced to hire an ombudsman for the university. What’s more, they’ve decided to make this person open to students to interact with! It all sounds great, but will it really make a difference?
In a basic sense, the idea of an ombudsman is pretty simple. If you have a big complaint to make, or a concern that warrants investigation at a higher level, you should bring it to the ombudsman. Through the ombudsman, these things can be investigated independently and, hopefully, the right outcome can be found free of conflicts of interest and so on.
It all sounds great, especially when you consider that students will have access to this service. But will it really work how we as students need it to? Having been an elected caseworker for postgraduate students for UCD Students’ Union in Dublin for two years, I have to say I have my doubts.
In Ireland, if students want independent advice, most will go to the Union. The reason is simple: universities provide advice for students who have issues, but that advice is provided by employees paid by the university. Meanwhile, the Union provides advice paid for by students. One works for you, the other for the university, and it’s the UG deciding how much this contract is worth.
Maybe they can help you, but a neutral party can’t be your advocate
That isn’t to say that the idea of an ombudsman isn’t good, though; a more neutral party to investigate complaints is surely welcome. But, as a student, if you go to this ombudsman to make a complaint here at the UG, it’s probably the first one you’ve made and you have to make it yourself. Maybe they can help you, but a neutral party can’t be your advocate.
Now, compare that to the support your lecturer or supervisor has access to. They have the support of their colleagues, a university HR department, the contract of employment, and access to an intimate knowledge of what’s involved in the process of a complaint beyond the pages these processes are written on. The gap in access to experience and expertise is huge.
So, your lecturer gets to go to this neutral ombudsman with all of this experience, expertise and support, and you get to face it all with what little help you can get. I like the idea, but it really doesn’t sound like a great equaliser to me. Maybe I’m just pessimistic.
We can only hope.