Just as with similar sites (like Ryanair, for example), I need to point out that this Web site does not offer advice or seek to elicit money. It only gives individual observations and experiences relating to British (and Irish) Universities which may be of interest to others.



Original statement on this site

Most British Universities have accountability systems which could correctly be described as palm-tree justice - "cheap, nasty and quick" in the words of an Australian critic who was attacking the remnants of the British "accountability" system in Australian Universities. (Comparatively speaking, the former polytechnics had a much more satisfactory system, under the CNAA, but these have possibly been to a certain extent, if not largely, abandoned as these new Universities attempt to remove their accountability)

In general, British Universities have three levels of "Mickey-Mouse" accountability

  1. University departments are immediately accountable to an external examiner. Unfortunately, external examiners are appointed by the very same departments they are supposed to be supervising. Presumably, it would be likely that the external examiner and members of the department are already known to each other, either from conferences, or guest seminars, and the like, and are possibly likely to have a very cosy relationship.

    • Sea Empress It reminds me a lot of the way that owners of oil tankers are able to choose which country to register their ships in. At places like Newcastle University the identity of the External Examiner is kept an absolute secret.
  2. It is not unnatural to expect that any major grievance about exam results would be dealt with in the usual way i.e. before some hearing carried out in the accepted manner, with experts to represent students, cross-questioning allowed etc. (as per the standard model offered by the judiciary of this country). This is not the way most British Universities operate - it varies from University to University.

      At Newcastle, the sole method in which a student can express a grievance is to write a letter to the Dean of Faculty, who then deals with it, in secret, without any further communication with the student.
  3. The only other action you can take is to appeal to the University's Visitor. To quote The Guardian : 'For students caught up in the Byzantine process of making a complaint about their university, the "visitor" system may seem Dickensian. In fact it's not that modern'.

    For the last few years, there has been an ongoing campaign to get rid of the Visitor, boosted by the European Human Rights Act. The Government even said at one stage that it was going to abolish the post, but this does not seem to have been fully achieved yet.

What needs to done?

What needs to be done is fairly clear

Abolition of the External Examiner system. Steps in this general direction were proposed in the Labor Party proposals when they were in opposition. We all know that this is a different thing from actual implementation by a Labor Government but at least the subject is in the air, it is not just an unrealizable idealization.
The institution of a Watchdog for the Universities. Since Watchdogs already exist for many areas such as Gas, Electric, Telecommunications etc.etc., it would be no great innovation to set up such a body for the Universities. In fact, Universities are notable for being about the only public bodies immune from this type of accountability (as already mentioned we are awaiting how recent developments in this field turn out).
And along the way, institute an appeal structure that bore more of a resemblance to the standard model set by the British Legal System.

Since the original statement was made

Since 2004, there has been some seeming improvement with the introduction of a University Ombudsman - the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. I would like to hear any experiences of this new body. (I know students at Newcastle University are unable to appeal to the Ombudsman). Revision since the above was stated : Nowadays all Universities are bound to allow students to appeal to this body. But there seems to be some technicality whereby the Visitor at a University could override any decision.

OIA - the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education has been active since March 2004, and I would welcome any experiences of dealing with this body.


Here is a particular opinion offered on the nature of the Ombudsman.


One additional point - the word "lecturer" is a misnomer in this context. Lecturers are actually employed purely for their research activity. Their promotion prospects etc. rely purely on their research activities - their ability, or lack, of it in teaching is totally irrelevant. All in all, by the application of Murphy's Law, a total recipe for disaster, if ever there was one.


"..If no-one turned up to lectures, then the lecturers still got paid... In the first lecture, Tolkien mumbled a lot, but ostensibly talked about narrative. Two of us turned up for the second lecture. When Tolkien arrived, he had an angry expression on his face, as though angered by the fact that anyone had still turned for his lecture. For the rest of the course, he spent most of the time with his head turned to the blackboard, and mumbling."



Email If you have questions or comments about this page, please email me.

Post Brian Daugherty, 31 MH, Portsmouth, PO5 3JG, Britain

If you would like a link inserted, or if you would like me to insert details of your grievance directly on this site, I would be happy to do so. Whether you are right or wrong is not really of relevance to me - what is probably more likely is that you will not have been given a fair hearing, and that's all that counts. But if you want to follow the latter course, I would prefer if your information was "joined up" and rational, and submitted to me in electronic form.