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Gripes get a public hearing

Lecturing staff and members of the public, like students, are entitled to lodge complaints against colleges and universities.

That was made clear this week by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, whose office earlier in the month became the "last resort" for complaints against further or higher education institutions which they have not been able to resolve internally.

The ombudsman has already been working closely with NUS Scotland to raise students' awareness of their right to complain, targeting freshers' fairs at the start of the academic session.

Now staff are being targeted, kicking off on Monday when a seminar took place, jointly organised with Universities Scotland.

"Our aim is to discuss complaints and how they can be resolved in a manner that satisfies the complainant and may help bring about improvements where required in the service that FE and HE institutions provide," a spokesperson said.

Professor Alice Brown, the ombudsman, wrote in her annual report for last year that she hoped that, as well as identifying what is working and what is not, the complaints machinery would also act as a vehicle for taking on board lessons and providing evidence of what can be done to improve public services.

One of the Ombudsman's key themes would be that of accountability, Professor Brown said. She is pressing for a change in the law so that public bodies can issue an apology when theings go wrong without fear of the consequences of admitting liability. There should also be a 'model'

complaints handling process to bring greater simplicity to it.

The SPSO investigates complaints against most bodies providing public services in Scotland, including local government, the health service and registered social landlords. As a result of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005, which created the single funding council, its remit expanded on October 3 to include both sectors.

The SPSO investigates when someone claims to have suffered "injustice or hardship as a result of a service not working properly or fairly or not at all", it states.

Issues in the tertiary sector include admissions, welfare, discipline, human rights, discrimination, supervision, support for students with particular needs and academic appeals.

But the ombudsman is precluded from looking at academic judgments, personnel matters, contracts and other commercial transactions and complaints involving the Open University in Scotland (which is not devolved within the HE sector north of the border).

The number of complaints lodged with the ombudsman in 2004-05 rose to 2,377 from 1,791 the year before. Local government sparked 61 per cent of complaints, particularly planning applications (11 per cent) and hospital clinical treatment (10.5 per cent).

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