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Outside ear for student disputes

Students have welcomed the proposed extension of the public services ombudsman's powers to colleges and universities, while further education leaders gave a resigned response.

The move was announced by Jim Wallace, Lifelong Learning Minister, who commented: "Bodies receiving public money must be open and accountable."

Mr Wallace made it clear that recourse to the ombudsman would only kick in once internal procedures for handling complaints had been exhausted. "This move will help students across Scotland ensure that they receive the level of service they have the right to expect, and that any complaints they do have can be dealt with effectively."

Surveys of student experience in FE colleges do not suggest the ombudsman will be overburdened by complaints. The 2001 and 2003 findings were that, despite colleges exceeding their four-year intake target by 10 per cent by 2002, more than 90 per cent of students were fairly or highly satisfied with the quality of their learning experience.

Rami Okasha, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said the proposals, which go out for consultation until April, represent "a massive step forward in dealing with complaints once they have exhausted internal complaints procedures. At the moment, many students have nowhere to turn to."

The Association of Scottish Colleges accepted the move as "the direction of travel". Tom Kelly, its chief executive, said the ombudsman "should not be a substitute for using college machinery to resolve disputes".

Mr Kelly also made it clear it was not to be seen as a way to review academic judgments of students' work.

Professor Alice Brown, the public services ombudsman, will be no stranger to her new task: she was educated at Stevenson College in Edinburgh and taught at Stirling and Edinburgh universities.

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