‘Too few ombudsmen: a real concern’

According to Lies Poesiat, Chairperson of the Vereniging Ombudsmannen in het Hoger Onderwijs (VOHO, the Dutch association of ombudsmen in higher education), ombudsmen are crucial for students when it comes to reducing the many complaints in higher education. ‘Unfortunately there are still far too few of us.’

Ombudsmen in higher education: there just aren’t that many of them. They aren’t even mentioned at the recently launched Studierechten.com, a website where students are informed about how to handle their complaints.

This is regrettable, says Lies Poesiat, Ombudsman at VU University Amsterdam and Chairperson of the VOHO. ‘Students can contact us for all kinds of complaints, whether it concerns poor thesis supervision or something that’s been perceived as poorly handled by a lecturer or degree programme.’

Why go to the ombudsman instead of the usual complaints office?
‘Our job is trying to keep students from having to lodge an official complaint. This saves both the student and the institution a lot of time and hassle. We can get things settled a lot faster: many complaints are often solved in just a few weeks so students can get on with the rest of their life.’

‘That’s important, especially when it comes to the student loan system: higher education costs more nowadays. As I’m always asking students, what good is it if your complaint is upheld but the problem isn’t solved? Lodging a complaint isn’t conducive to friendly interpersonal relationships in an organisation but mediation can actually help to maintain them. We’re also easily accessible. For a complaints committee, you have to send a letter. Both this and the procedure are time-consuming. Students can also reach me with WhatsApp.’

How many institutions of higher education have an ombudsman?
‘Far too few. Only two universities of applied sciences and three universities have one for students (see sidebar). Having so few is a real concern. We advocate including an ombudsman in legislation, but the Minister of Education thinks the institutions themselves have to make that decision.’

Why are there so few of you?
‘Ombudsmen are a relatively new concept in the field of education. They’ve only been around for ten or fifteen years. Many institutions doubt whether they would add anything new to the existing range of complaints offices, student psychologists and student counsellors.’

So, what do they add?
‘What makes us different is our impartiality: we operate independently. We have the authority to investigate matters and make recommendations in order to solve problems as quickly as possible. Every ombudsman works according to regulations that his institution adopted and that were approved by the student council. One of these is that they are not subordinate to any other body. Although they are ultimately an employee, they are intended to function independently.’

Who has an ombudsman?

Universities with a student ombudsman
Delft University of Technology
Leiden University
VU University Amsterdam

Universities with a staff ombudsman
VU University Amsterdam
Utrecht University

Universities of applied sciences with a student ombudsman
HAN University of Applied Sciences
Zuyd University of Applied Sciences
And The Hague University of Applied Sciences has not just one but four ombudsmen for students

Universities of applied sciences with a staff ombudsman
Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
HAN University of Applied Sciences
VHL University of Applied Sciences
HKU University of the Arts Utrecht
The Hague University of Applied Sciences
HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht
Zuyd University of Applied Sciences