The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and border controls have resulted in unprecedented upheaval for learning and teaching.  Universities have in very short time been required to change the way they deliver their courses and students have had to change the way they learn.

New possibilities for student grievances have arisen. Reports from the US, the UK and New Zealand tell of unhappy students wanting, and probably suing, for redress for shortfalls relative to their expectations. They argue that off-campus online learning provided by universities is not what they paid for. Students in Australia will likely feel the same and may take similar action.

The circumstances are new but students suing their universities is not. Over time, student actions have raised many vexed questions – in particular, where and by whom should they be decided.  There are institutional Ombuds, state and federal Ombudsmen and TEQSA; all of whom have an important role in ensuring fair decision making but it is hard to see their application here.  Commonly students have resorted to courts and tribunals, traditionally with little success.

So – what about a dedicated body to resolve disputes between students and universities – in line with systems now recognised and encouraged in all civil matters?  The need has never been clearer.

Research in this area looked at the UK Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and envisaged its equivalent for Australia. Particularly, Kamvounias & Varnham concluded

“It is clear that litigation is not working for students. Neither can it be working for universities in terms of time, money and energy expended on fighting such claims in the courts. Now is surely the time for serious consideration to be given to an alternative approach such as an ombudsman with a function specially dedicated to the resolution of student–university grievances.”

Such a body could comprise all university stakeholders, allowing them to work with students for students. With these inclusive sector perspectives, it could develop guiding principles with universal application, rather than the existing state of scattered decisions.

The diverse range of forums and avenues currently used by students are mostly inappropriate and inefficient. At this time, and in these circumstances, serious consideration should be given to the establishment of a dedicated specialist dispute resolution body.

Professor Sally Varnham, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

National Senior Teaching Fellow

[email protected]


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