Elahe Mohtasham’s research on the laws affecting international nuclear weapons safeguards leads her to conclude that universities’ use of injunctions to prevent the adjudication of academic complaints needs review.

As early as the 1990s, Professor John Griffith, one of the UK leading public law scholars of the 20th century, published an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement providing an overview of the worsening of academic standard at the UK universities and academic institutions. He acknowledged the existence of bullying, corruption, nepotism, cheating, and gagging clauses, as well as the abuse of power at academic institutions.

Griffith explained why the internal structure of universities’ complaints system would not lend itself to the resolution of disputes, mainly because the upholding of a complaint or the dismissal of a charge would also imply criticisms of senior academics and officials by their own colleagues.

In the early 2000, there was some hope that the situation might improve with the establishment of regulatory bodies, such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE). OIAHE was established as a result of the Higher Education Act of 2004, to deal with the students’ complaints.  

However, in practice, OIAHE has only had the limited power to review individual complaints by students in higher education, with no power to punish or regulate the universities for wrongful practices.

In addition, as a counter measure to the power of the OIAHE, the universities have been able to obtain injunctions from the High Court to block and prevent students’ access to the OIAHE in the first place.

The failure and refusal of OIAHE to provide any assistance to students wishing to present their case to OIAHE in such circumstances, has been an added problem, characterising the existing unsatisfactory system of dispute resolution involving academics and universities.

Moreover, in the absence of an independent academic ombudsman to deal with the complaints of the universities’ staff (as opposed to the students’ complaints), serious and longstanding disputes continue without any satisfactory legal means for their resolutions.

It is within this context that the establishment of a public inquiry to address, discuss - and ultimately make policy-related recommendations - is urgent.

The terms of reference of such an inquiry could be broad, exploring the reasons for the failures of the existing legal arrangements (both OIAHE and the judicial system of the High Court and tribunals) to deal with disputes originating at universities and academic research institutions.

Such an inquiry could also address more specific issues put to it by different groups of staff and students of universities, and other academic research institutions. The results could be used to identify the lessons that could be learned, to resolve some of the existing problems as well as to learn how to respond to similar problems in the most effective manner in the future, in the best interests of the public as a whole.

In this context, it would be important to bear in mind the fact that academics who act as policy advisers to the UK Ministry of Defence (pictured) and Foreign and Commonwealth Office have substantial influence on the UK defence and foreign policy decision-making.

Therefore, it is clear that it would be an urgent matter of public interest that a proper investigation of disputes originating in the universities and academic institutions is carried out.

The urgency for the establishment of such an inquiry is more evident when one takes into account the current call by the Defence Committee of the House of Commons for an inquiry into the decision-making in the UK defence policy.

The deterioration of academic standards at the UK universities and academic institutions would undoubtedly have direct adverse effects on the UK security, foreign and defence policies.

For examples, corrupt employment practices at academic institutions might provide opportunities for some academics to present themselves to the Ministry of Defence or Foreign and Commonwealth Office as experts on subjects in which they would have no proper training or background information.  

In these circumstances, questions such as the manner in which public funds have been used to finance academic research at  universities would make the need for the establishment of an inquiry to deal with academic complaints, involving employment of academics, an urgent matter of public interest.

The time, prior to setting up of such an inquiry, could be used as a means to encourage an informed and open debate on these issues, which would make a significant contribution to the more systematic investigation under the umbrella of a public inquiry, in the near future.

Elahe Mohtasham is an academic specialising in the international law of nuclear weapons non-proliferation and an international nuclear safeguards system