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Opinion - Students ombuds, an overdue intervention

2021-11-26  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Students ombuds, an overdue intervention
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On 16 October 2015, the former University of Cape Town Ombud, wrote in the Mail and Guardian “Every varsity should have an Ombud”. This is as true now as it was then. Ombuds are not a nice to have institution. They are necessary for the wellbeing of all people in the organisation where the Ombud serves, to function as the conscience of the organisation. 

 The word “Ombudsman” is Swedish and means “representative”. The word is not gendered, although many universities are using the terms “ombuds,” or “ombudsperson”, to make the word gender-neutral. The modern use of the term began in 1809 when the Swedish government created the office. Sweden and several other European countries appointed a relatively senior official who would have access to all levels of government to resolve problems. Since the 1950s, many states, universities, and businesses have created ombudsman offices. 

These include organisations ranging from business, healthcare, financial industries, municipalities, and other government sectors such as universities are turning to the notion of an ombuds to resolve conflicts thoughtfully, lawfully, and impartially, with speed and in line with the constitutions and applicable policy frameworks. 

An ombud is an objective, impartial person, who is senior enough to give the necessary feedback without fear of retribution, who can readily interact with all levels of the organisation, can be approached in strict confidence with complaints of unfair or improper treatment, a request for an independent view on a matter, or an inquiry into bureaucratic policies and practices. Most importantly, ombuds, cut through the red tape. 

The ombuds’ role has a long and honourable tradition as a means of protecting against abuse, bias, or any kind of unfairness as experienced by the person who visits the office to complain as a user of the service. It is also a human rights and social justice intervention. 

On enforcement of fundamental rights and freedoms, Article (25) (2) of the Namibian Constitution says: 

 “Aggrieved persons who claim that a fundamental right or freedom guaranteed by this constitution has been infringed or threatened shall be entitled to approach a competent court to enforce or protect such a right or freedom and may approach the Ombudsman to provide them with such legal assistance or advice as they require, and the Ombudsman shall have the discretion in response thereto to provide such legal or other assistance as he or she may consider expedient.” Ayeni, argues that in Namibia, ready access to an ombudsman now qualifies as a right in itself that every citizen is entitled to in a modern democratic state. At the moment, the constitution of Namibia probably comes closest to this position with its guarantee of the services of its ombudsman as a basic right. Institutions such as universities, not only are they public institutions where citizens assemble, but they are in themselves microcosms of society, whose policies and governance processes are drawn from the same constitutional mandate.

As microcosms of society, universities carry an additional university-specific identity. By definition, they are places of rigorous debate, places of freedom of thought and expression, a breeding ground for conflicts, disputes, and agreements. It is therefore ideal and would serve universities better to emulate the ombudsman structure for the university especially for the most vulnerable of its constituencies – students. Universities are a hierarchy and students depend on structures of power to succeed or progress. These could be administrators or faculty to help them realise their academic careers. This dependency is characterised by fear to speak up or complain when experiencing unfair treatment. As a result, students get stuck and do not trust who they can confidentially speak to.

Ayeni argues that human beings are inherently prone to abuse powers conferred on them when in authority. There is always a need to ensure that those charged to guard the conduct of others are themselves supervised to prevent any potential abuse. 

Ombuds, as change agents, are well placed to function as safeguards for students (and staff) against unfairness, discrimination, and poor administration of the university business by the bureaucracy. They do so in a manner consistent with the standards of independence, confidentiality, and impartiality. Thus, an ombud is unambiguously different from the deans of students proven to be “part of the university’s bureaucracy”.

“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.” 


1] John C. Keene, University Ombudsman, University of Pennsylvania, Almanac – Vo. 54, No. 27, 2008

[2] Ayeni V “The Ombudsman in the achievement of administrative justice and Human rights in the New Millenium, International Ombudsman Journal, Volume 5, 2001, pp. 32-53.  

Smith, R. “A Brief History of the Student Ombudsman: The Early Evolution of the Role in US Higher Education”. JIOA 2020 

[4] Leidenfrost, J. “ Ombudsmen in Higher Education: Helping the Single Student, Contributing to the Universities’ Institutional Changes” 

Creative Education, 2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 8-10 Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (


• Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa is a former Ombud of the University of Cape Town, a leader in Ombudsing on the African Continent, and Africa Region Chairperson of the International Ombuds Association (IOA) International Outreach Committee (IOC). 


• Dr Shirley Shivangulula is an Academic and Corporate Consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in Economic and Industrial Sociology. Her expertise are in Higher Education Policy and Public Policy and Governance, the Economies of Finance and Labour and Financial Regulation.

Both Zetu and Dr Shirley write in their personal capacities. 


2021-11-26  Staff Reporter

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