Ombudsmen for students are sorely needed to reduce the volume of complaints in higher education, says Lies Poesiat, Chair of the Vereniging Ombudsmannen in het Hoger Onderwijs (VOHO), the association for ombudsmen in higher education in the Netherlands. “But unfortunately our numbers are far too small.”

There aren’t many ombudsmen in higher education. They aren’t even mentioned in the recently launched website (a website with information on legal assistance for students at institutions of higher education).

Lies Poesiat, ombudsman at the VU University Amsterdam and chair of VOHO feels this is an unfortunate situation. “Students can come to us with all kinds of complaints ranging from poor thesis supervision to alleged unreasonable treatment from a lecturer or a programme.”

Lies Poesiat. Image credit: Linkedin

Why approach an ombudsman instead of the regular complaints desk?

“We want to avoid a situation where a student submits a formal complaint. That saves the student and the institution a great deal of time and effort. Procedures are dealt with very quickly by our office: within a few weeks, most complaints are resolved and students can carry on with their studies.”

“That’s important, especially when you factor in the student loan system. Studying is expensive now. I always tell students they don’t stand to gain much just by having their complaint deemed valid, while their problem remains unresolved. A complaint isn’t beneficial to the situation and mediation could actually be conducive to maintaining a healthy environment in the organisation. It’s important to keep in mind we’re also very accessible. You often have to send a letter to a complaints committee. This is very time consuming, just like the rest of the procedure. Students can reach me through WhatsApp.”

How many institutions have an ombudsman?

“Not enough. Only two universities of applied sciences and three universities have one for students. This is a serious shortcoming. We’re advocating for the ombudsman to be included in law, but the Minister feels that institutions should be able to decide for themselves.”

Why are there so few?

“The ombudsman is a relatively new concept in the world of higher education. The office has only been around for about ten or fifteen years. Many institutions aren’t sure what the ombudsman has to offer, given the range of services offered by complaints desks, student psychologists and student counsellors.”

So what does an ombudsman have to offer?

“It’s our impartiality that makes the difference: we’re independent. We’re permitted to investigate matters and make recommendations to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. Every ombudsman operates in accordance with regulations drafted by the institution where he or she works, and these regulations have been approved by the student council. One of the provisions in the regulations is that the ombudsman is not subordinate to any other body in the hierarchy. Of course they’re employees at the end of the day, but they are meant to act independently.”