Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 8-10
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Ombudsmen in Higher Education: Helping the Single Student,
Contributing to the Universities’ Institutional Changes
Josef Leidenfrost
Austrian Student Ombudsman, Vienna, Austria
Received June 5th, 2013; revise d J uly 4th, 2013; accepted July 11th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Josef Leidenfrost. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
This article aims to firstly give a brief insight into the major challenges for modern time universities like
necessary change management, growing competitiveness, increasing expectations by the stakeholders and
how rising tuition fees affect all of that, and secondly on the growing pressure for universities on re-
sponding more effectively to a demanding student population, mounting expectations and diverse back-
grounds of students, and thirdly how alternative dispute resolution is more and more commonly used as a
means of resolving disputes and complaints informally and at an early stage in order to avoid litigation
and the courts. It is described how ombudsmen in higher education can help to minimize the students’
feelings of disconnection created by formal and judicial processes and get fair treatment. Catering either
for students only or for the whole university community, ombudsmen provide confidential, impartial
complaints handling services and also contribute to change management on the macro level and hence
help with changing policies.
Keywords: University Governance; Complaint Management; Conflict Resolution; Higher Education
A university, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is
an “educational institution designed for instruction or examina-
tion or both of students in all or many of the more important
branches of advanced learning, conferring degrees in various
faculties”. After centuries of relative seclusion as so-called
“ivory towers”, these educational institutions of advanced learn-
ing are becoming increasingly “market oriented” (Cote & Al-
lahan, 2007). This entails business orientation, the introduction
of marketing mechanisms, and marketing strategies in higher
Contemporary Challenges to Universities
The contemporary university faces three major challenges:
the challenge of change management due to multiple, often
competing, demands; the challenge of more competitiveness;
and the challenge of increasing expectations from a diverse stu-
dent population, including a growing number of internationally
mobile students.
Due to changing times and conditions, universities are proac-
tively looking for students. They are therefore becoming active
in vigorous recruitment and marketing activities. Their strate-
gies are determined by competitive admission processes, which,
in turn, are forming student expectations and student “behav-
iour” (Birtwistle, 2008).
This does not necessarily imply that students are aware what
their educational needs really are. Nor does it imply that uni-
versities should change themselves to become what future stu-
dents might find attractive. Such changes could well be counter
the traditional concept of a university as a “universitas littera-
rum”. There is also a danger in overselling the perceived virtues
of “market oriented” universities to prospective students, no
matter if they are “old” or “traditional”, “new” or “modern” in
the universities’ own view. What is imminent to both is: the
need of quality: determined by satisfaction on reliability, re-
sponsiveness, assurance, empathy, and tangibility (Turney,
Mass Universities: Fees and the
Perception of “Quality”
Since by now the majority of national higher education sys-
tems worldwide have introduced tuition fees in their higher
education systems, universities have to respond accordingly to
quality demands.
Tuition fees have a major impact on the perception of quality.
With fees come different expectations. On the organisational
side, they may lead to more efficiency; they may raise also the
level of services and sensitivity about more service orientation.
The increasing size of universities has stimulated the devel-
opment of complex infrastructures on site, e.g. of information
systems, student support services, new communications and
learning technologies, etc. and the development of exchanges
and cooperation with outside. At the same time, the negative
sides of mass universities are also becoming more obvious: a
growing anonymity within the universities, a decreasing com-
mitment of its personnel (and probably even of its leadership),
the lack of personal contact between students and professors,
generally less commitment of universities and students to each
other (Leidenfrost, 2013).
Yet another hot topic is the open access versus the selective
admission of students, not to forget adequate student social
support schemes and even such pragmatic issues as accommo-
dations and residence requirements.
Higher education institutions may make promises during re-
cruitment and not fulfil them after enrolment, simply because
there are no or only vague agreements between institutions and
students, since there are hardly any (detailed) contracts. No
higher education institution does or can issue fully comprehen-
sive information on the quality of its courses and programs or
on the conditions of daily life and work on-site.
At classical universities, there is nothing to be bought or
“consumed”. Classical Universities are neither department stor es
(although some newer ones look alike them) nor catalogue
companies (although some have very similar marketing strate-
gies). The world of higher education is offering (continuing)
education, instruction, knowledge, life-long learning, skills, last
but not least, academic degrees. But: With a growing pressure
on higher education institutions, they have to respond more
effectively (and more quickly) to a demanding student body, to
the mounting expectations and diverse backgrounds of students
(Turney, 1993).
If Things Go Wrong: Bring the Ombudsman in
Students and academics are living and (inter)acting within a
special sphere that has its own genuine set of codes and rules.
Universities have different regulations than the “world outside”,
they are run and function in a different way and are therefore
managed in a different way, too. It is a world of its own kind,
more momentous challenges and problems can arise than just
“practical” services issues which need different approaches.
Universities have a variety of formal procedures for things
going wrong. These rules are often driven by their own rules
and federal and state law pertaining to various issues. As a re-
sult of these formally established procedures and the timelines
associated with various steps, issues and/or concerns often be-
come cumbersome, time-consuming and/or frustrating and do
not always resolve the crux of disputes. So, more and more
universities have informal mechanisms to resolve issues and/or
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is such an informal
mechanism, a process of resolving disputes by providing each
side’s needs, and adequately addressing their interests and con-
cerns. Alternative conflict resolution aims to end conflicts be-
fore they start or, at least, before they escalate. It helps to avoid
legal procedures as much as possible (Ziegenfuss & D’Rourke,
The University Ombudsman is such an ADR instrument. An
ombudsman is a person, who is in charge of representing the
interests of the “ruled” against the “rulers” by investigating and
addressing complaints reported by individuals (Conway & Lei-
denfrost, 2010). The term arises from its use in Sweden, with
the Parliamentary Ombudsman instituted there in 1809 to safe-
guard the rights of citizens by establishing a supervisory agency
independent of the executive branch. The word and its specific
meaning have since been adopted into English as well as other
An academic or university, or more general: higher education
institution (HEI) ombudsman, is an independent, neutral person
to whom students, staff, faculty and/or administrators can turn
in an informal and confidential manner for help with their com-
plaints about the HEI and its community. He aims at resolving
problems in an informal manner, primarily through mediation.
Another important task is to identify structural problems and
making recommendations to responsible authorities to prevent
similar problems in the future. HEI ombudsmen’s main work-
ing principles are those for independence, impartiality, neutral-
ity, and confidentiality.
HEI ombudsmen are set up by the institutions themselves or
are mandatory under the respective higher education legisla-
Universities first started to have ombudsmen in Canada in
1965, soon after that in the United States (Conway, 2013). Now
they are part of many higher education systems around the
world. Ombudsmen’s experiences are highlighting and can help
raising awareness towards manifold problems as they arise.
Their feedback helps the decision makers to carry out changes
and adaptations within the complex system of a university.
In the process-focused formal channels, students’ perceptions
and beliefs (being the “weaker element”) may be dismissed as
unimportant to the process due to the “lack of probative value”
or due to the “tendency to confuse the issues”. Alternative dis-
pute resolution through ombudsmen focuses more on resolution,
relationships, and interpersonal communication. Ombudsman
services for students are nowadays set up in order to minimize
the students’ feelings of disconnection created by traditional
judicial processes and to offer alternative treatment especially
for academic issues. In some European countries (like in Spain)
ombudsmen are in charge of all members of the university, and
are compulsor y un d e r the law.
Higher Education Ombudsmen: Helping to
Change Governance
Controlling the proper, correct and quick appliance of regu-
lations is one main task of academic ombudsmen. The other
one is helping to get fair treatment, mainly through mediation
in opposition to any legal settlement of disputes and conflicts
before the courts. Mediation as a voluntary and informal proc-
ess where an acceptable third party, the mediator (ombudsman)
helps disputants to resolve their differences in a doable and
durable agreement (Leidenfrost, 2013).
The ombudsmen being active within national and interna-
tional higher education are mostly sharing transferable princi-
ples like their independence from the country’s government and
the institution’s leadership. Ideally, the universities and the stu-
dents themselves as such are supposed to “own” the position of
the ombudsman.
Depending for whom they cater, ombudsman offices provide
confidential, impartial complaint handling services to students,
staff, faculty and administrators. They assist with complaints
involving interpersonal misunderstandings or disputes as well
as those with complaints about academic or administrative is-
The role of an ombudsman office includes:
listening and discussing questions, concerns, and complaints;
helping evaluate various options to address concerns;
answering questions or help find others who can;
explaining university policies and procedures;
advising individuals about steps to resolve problems infor-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 9
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
advising individuals about formal and administrative options;
mediating disputes to seek resolution of problems;
making appropriate referrals when informal options don’t
pointing out patterns of problems/complaints to administra-
tors/decision makers or bodies at the institution.
These manifold roles lead to three main vital functions for
ombudsmen: problem assistance, organizational critical self-
analysis and changing an institution’s governance (Conway &
Leidenfrost, 2010).
Attribute to changes through the work of ombudsmen, the
defence of the “ruled” from the “rulers” through investigation
and addressing complaints, results from a complex interplay of
emotions and cognitive processes of all people involved.
Change management, the process of developing a planned
approach to changes inside organizations, can be akin to op-
portunity, rejuvenation, progress, innovation, and growth, but
also to instability, upheaval, unpredictability, threat and disori-
entation. Whether members of a university perceive changes
with fear, anxiety and demoralisation or with excitement and
confidence depends on institutional governance.
If change management is a planned process for changes then
ombudsing is an apt tool for such changes needed in the univer-
sities’ macro environment in times of massification and in-
creasing competitiveness of higher education.
Universities should clarify and make it publicly known the
roles and responsiveness of its many actors to provide the stu-
dents and the general public with accountability. Information
concerning the organisation and changes within then organisa-
tion should be timely and balanced to ensure that all members
of the university have access to clear, factual information.
If a university is to thrive and be responsive to a diverse set
of voices, it is well advised to have an ombudsman office to
assist the university leadership in fulfilling its missions—with
all of its constituencies, also internationally.
Ombudsman services “humanize” institutions for many con-
stituents. The existence of an ombudsman sends the message
that the institution cares about its people and recognizes the
value of providing informal dispute resolution for members of
the campus and the international community (Karp & Allena,
Birtwistle, T. (2008). Legal aspects of higher education in an interna-
tional context: Disputes, resolutions, methods and safeguards. Am-
sterdam: EAIE Occasional Papers
Conway, M., & Leidenfrost, J. (Eds.) (2010). Common objectives—
Different pathway: Embedding ombudsman principles and practices
into higher education institutions. Vienna: Ministry of Science and
Coté, J. E., & Allahan, A. L. (2007). Ivory tower blues. A university
system in crisis. Torotno: University of Toronto Pr es s.
Howard, C. L. (2010). The organizational ombudsman. Origins, roles,
and operations. A legal guide. Chicago: American Bar Association.
Karp, D., & Allena, T. (2004). Restorative justice on the college cam-
pus. Promoting students growth and responsibility and reawakening
the spirit of campus community. Springfield, IL; Charles C. Thomas
Leidenfrost, J. (Coming Up in 2014). Non-hierarchical conflict resolu-
tion in higher education: In-house mediation as a tool. Vienna: Min-
istry of Science and Research
Turney, W. G. (1993). The responsive university. Restructuring for
high performance. Baltimore: Hopkins University Press.
Ziegenfuss Jr., J. T., & D’Rourke, P. (2011). The ombudsman hand-
book. Designing and managing an effective problem-solving pro-
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